Waco Independent School District has taken the first step toward a blended learning model by giving teachers a way to improve literacy through software that gives direct feedback for student improvement.

Teachers were trained on “Achieve 3000” during winter break, and have spent the last month and a half using the software to gauge individual literacy needs for students across all subject areas, Waco ISD spokesman Kyle DeBeer said. The district paid $285,000 for the software out of its instructional materials allotment, he said.

Implementing Achieve 3000 is tied to Superintendent A. Marcus Nelson’s larger vision of putting technology into the hands of each of Waco ISD’s 15,000 students in a way that elevates a child’s ability to understand reading concepts and doesn’t take away from teachers’ ability to educate, district officials said.

The blended learning model is part of the district’s transformation plan to save five schools facing the possibility of closure by the state or an in-district charter partnership for failing to meet state standards at least five consecutive years. The model impacts schools districtwide and is expected to cost the district millions of dollars, Nelson said earlier this school year.

The district is still sorting out logistics and possible funding strategies, DeBeer said.

“The best way I can describe Achieve 3000 for you is it levels the playing field,” said Grace Benson, the district’s interim elementary curriculum executive director. “When you’re a classroom teacher, in your classroom, you have a wide range in the literacy skills your students possess. … But as a classroom teacher, your expectations are the same for all your students.”

Since November, officials have pushed to improve literacy skills districtwide. Administrators identified the need for improvement as the most important academic challenge during the next few years, with only 54 percent of third-graders reading at grade level or higher.

Achieve 3000 allows students who struggle with literacy to read articles at their level that meets class curriculum and to keep up with classroom discussions in a more individualized way, Benson said. Students are also given an assessment that provides data and direct feedback on the specific areas of improvement and teachers use the data to measure progress, she said.

The software generates reports once a month for educators to see how their students are improving.

“The coolest part about it is it adjusts to what the kids need,” said teacher Mark Stroup, G.W. Carver Middle School’s English, Language Arts and Reading department head. “When you have 30 to 40 kids, and every one of them are different levels, from kindergarten to spot-on level, it is impossible to adjust those (reading level) rates to all those students and the questions to all those students, but at the same time keep them at the rigor they need that progresses them further.”

Carver Middle School is one of the five campuses fighting closure. The campus missed state standards last school year by four points.

Stroup said he has seen significant improvement in the engagement and buy-in of his students since Achieve 3000 was implemented.

“I had one student who went up 100 points, so she was very pleased,” Stroup said. “I could tell, and I told her, ‘You must be taking it seriously because you’re focusing in on the activities you should be doing.’ I had other students who dropped slightly, and it was a chance to ask them questions.”

Only 49 percent of the students read near or above grade level last year and only 5 percent mastered the subject, according to the Texas Education Agency’s 2016-2017 Texas Academic Performance Report. The campus has more than 400 students across sixth, seventh and eighth grade.

“With our students, I believe as a district we have moved in a direction that really has tapped into something kids can connect with,” Carver Principal Alonzo McAdoo said. “The second thing I see is in our teachers’ confidence in being able to know at the end of the day they have for sure presented a lesson that was able to touch every single one of their kids.”

As for where the district goes next with blended learning, district officials are evaluating infrastructure, security measures and identifying different devices and apps that could work for specific grade levels, DeBeer said.

“It’s a challenge in terms of devices, but it’s also a challenge in terms of infrastructure. You have to have the infrastructure, particularly with wireless access points to support those devices,” DeBeer said. “We also recognize there is a digital divide in our community. Not everyone has access to high-speed internet at home or has access to internet at home, so we’re thinking very thoughtfully about what are the things that, if we’re going to deploy devices, we can do to help bridge that divide and help make sure students are able to utilize the device both at home and at school. There are some big questions we have to answer.”

More than 80 percent of Waco ISD students are economically disadvantaged.

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