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A Well-Planned Approach Leads to Seamless Virtual Learning in Marlboro, New Jersey

A Well-Planned Approach Leads to Seamless Virtual Learning in Marlboro, New Jersey

Friday, March 13, 2020, was the last day of in-person classes of the 2019–20 school year for Marlboro Township Public Schools (MTPS) in Marlboro, New Jersey. Located just 45 miles south of New York City, Marlboro is near the epicenter of the early U.S. COVID-19 outbreak. While many districts across the country scrambled to figure out how to keep students learning in an online environment, for MTPS, the transition from in-person to fully virtual learning was seamless.

“[Students] have been learning digitally with us in a very systematic fashion for seven years now,” explained Michael Ballone, director of curriculum and instruction at MTPS. “When we made the transition, there was no transition. It was more of just, ‘You're using these tools for instruction and assigning kids on specific skills or standards within the program. Whether you do that from your classroom or your living room, it doesn't matter.’”

Building and executing an implementation framework

When Dr. Eric Hibbs became superintendent of MTPS in 2013, one of the first systems that he and his team put into place was a framework for how the district procures and manages digital tools. He reined in school-level purchasing of online programs and implemented a top-down approach. The top-down approach at MTPS isn’t about the district having control; it’s about making sure that the programs selected are reviewed for effectiveness and that everyone, starting with the leaders, understand the purpose of and the ways to use every online program to maximize the impact on student achievement. 

“Whereas, I think, a lot of places look at a digital tool as a cool extra—‘Hey, we have this’—and they just take the stone and roll it downhill, we roll it downhill on a track, watching it all the time,” explained Dr. Hibbs.

Three of the programs utilized by educators and students at MTPS are from Edmentum: Reading Eggs, Study Island, and Exact Path, and each one serves a specific purpose. Reading Eggs, Edmentum’s learn-to-read program, has been used in the district for several years in grades K–1 to help students build early reading and comprehension skills. 

Study Island, Edmentum’s practice and assessment program, has been used since about 2008 for practice, remediation, and assessment. Each year, students take four or five rigorous district-created common assessments, and based on the results, teachers provide a regiment of remediation for students in their areas of opportunity for improvement. Study Island is a key part of that regiment.

“We love the rigor of Study Island, and that's the reason why you guys have made the cut year after year with us,” said Dr. Hibbs.

“Study Island, especially with the improvements over the last few years, has proven to be just the deeper understanding, better quality-type questions versus drill and kill,” said Mr. Ballone.

Exact Path, Edmentum’s individualized learning and intervention program, was introduced to MTPS when the program that educators had been using to support struggling learners was no longer meeting the district’s needs. When Mr. Ballone learned about Exact Path, particularly how it assesses students and then places them on an individualized learning path, he was sold.

“With our Title I program, that just seemed like a no-brainer,” explained Mr. Ballone. “That was exactly what we needed, so we made the transition. That was two years ago, and we’ve had great results with it. The ability to provide them with those activities—let's say if it's a 5th grader who's on 3rd grade standards—to put them on a path to remediate those 3rd grade standards. We really were never able to do that in an efficient manner.”

To make sure that all educators in the district know how to use each program, all teachers and administrators complete training and are supported throughout the implementation by their Edmentum team. MTPS also maintains an edtech website that houses information about the digital tools used within the district, including “cheat sheets” that provide instructions and links to training resources. Additionally, MTPS created a data dashboard where leaders can track usage and performance across all of the online programs used. When it comes to exactly how the programs are used, there are minimum requirements, but teachers have the freedom to determine what is best for their classrooms.

“We trained everybody, and we talked about best practices,” explained Dr. Hibbs. “Best practices in a small group for differentiation; best practices for homework; best practices for in-school, out of school, all different ways—and then we allowed teachers to make value judgments on how and when they use the programs. I think that has yielded a very good response from our staff as we watch through our dashboard.”

Transitioning to virtual learning

Once the decision was made to close schools due to the pandemic, MTPS used an allotted bad weather day to give administrators and teachers a chance to prepare for fully virtual instruction. Fortunately, getting up and running with online learning programs was not a challenge.

“I think because we set our frame so strong and embedded it so deeply into our fabric, we didn't really have to do anything with our normal online tools,” said Dr. Hibbs. “We really didn't skip a beat. . . . I think it all comes back to training and that our staff were trained from top to bottom, from the executive cabinet to the district-level people to the principals, vice principals, supervisors, teachers, and kids. They all understood the expectations; they all understood what they needed to do and how to do it.”

In the first few weeks of the school closures, students engaged in mostly asynchronous learning: teachers posted assignments for their students through the school website or Google Classroom. Students completed their assignments and worked in online programs, including Study Island; Reading Eggs; and Exact Path, which the district expanded so that all students could use it during the school closure.

Then, once everyone became acclimated with virtual learning, teachers began hosting live Zoom class sessions as well. Classroom teachers post assignments for students; host two Zoom calls per week, per subject; and make themselves available to students and parents for four hours each school day. Teachers who work with programs such as gifted and talented, response to intervention (RTI), and special education also host Zoom calls to ensure that students are receiving the services they need. Although some parents pushed back because they preferred that their students have a set schedule that would keep them occupied all day, MTPS leaders knew that a flexible schedule was the best option to support both students and teachers.

“We have 450 teaching staff members,” reported Mr. Ballone. “You can't expect every single one of them, every single day to be on a Zoom working through their class periods or their class schedule as if they were in their classroom because they have that added layer of dealing with their own kids or dealing with people in their own families who are working, who are on conference calls.”

“I think people have appreciated that, and I think anyone who has kids understands how hard it is,” said Dr. Hibbs. “The response to us has been overwhelmingly positive. I think our staff are incredible and are doing a great job.”

Interested in more success stories from our partners? Take a look at how Ellicott Elementary School in Calhan, Colorado, is meeting students where they are academically—both within the walls of the brick-and-mortar classroom and at home in the wake of recent school closures due to the COVID-19 pandemic.