Schools put toy to work in classroom Learning software used at elementaries runs on PlayStation

November 02, 1998|By Howard Libit | Howard Libit,SUN STAFF

Brandi Dorsey arrives home from Lansdowne Elementary School eager to practice her third-grade math and vocabulary skills -- not with flashcards or textbooks but with her family's television and Sony PlayStation.

Since 1996, Brandi's family -- like all others at Lansdowne Elementary -- has been participating in an experiment to bring low-cost education technology into classrooms and homes with the goal of improving pupils' skills in math and reading.

"It's a lot of fun to do," says Brandi, 8, who particularly enjoys playing the education software "Cosmic Cookoff." "I learn a lot of things, so it helps me do better in class."

Every child at the southwestern Baltimore County school is lent a PlayStation and educational software until they finish fifth grade. The classrooms of the 370-pupil Lansdowne have at least two television sets and PlayStations -- often placed side by side with the computers found at most county schools.

The Lansdowne experiment is part of an effort by a San Diego company -- Lightspan Partnership Inc. -- to convince educators across the nation that its educational software will improve pupil achievement, particularly when the products are used in the home and at school.

"We were the first school to deploy Lightspan's hardware and software in every classroom and every child's home," says Lansdowne Principal Anne Gold. "We have found that it is enriching both places."

While teachers and parents were initially skeptical about placing video game machines in classrooms and homes, they say most pupils have avoided the temptation to play games and are using the technology as a learning tool.

Such technology efforts have become particularly critical in schools with large numbers of low-income families unable to afford computers at home. At Lansdowne, for instance, 48 percent of pupils are eligible for free or reduced-price lunches. Similarly, one entire grade at Logan Elementary on Baltimore County's east side has been equipped by Bell Atlantic with computers at home and school.

"If technology can be used in the home as a supplement to instruction, I think it can be of real value to children," says Jacqueline Nunn, director of the Center for Technology in Education at the Johns Hopkins University, who is not familiar with the specifics of Lightspan or Lansdowne's program.

Affordable alternative to PCs

Putting technology in a child's home can be expensive. But a PlayStation costs about $150, making it a more affordable alternative than $1,000 computers. Lansdowne has relied on a mix of Lightspan donations and federal Title I funding for its program.

Lightspan says its program -- called Lightspan Achieve Now -- is being used in thousands of schools across the country. Its effect on pupil achievement is being studied at two other Maryland schools, Samuel Coleridge Taylor Elementary in Baltimore and Indian Queen Elementary in Prince George's County.

But nowhere in Maryland is Lightspan being used as extensively as at Lansdowne, where it is frequently part of classroom assignments and homework.

'I do a lot with it'

"I do a lot with it," says Lansdowne second-grader Erin Johns, 7, as she peers intently at the television screen to search the rain forest for animals. "Sometimes I have to fight my brother for the PlayStation at home. He's 19, but the Lightspan is meant for me."

Lansdowne teacher Barbara Zink turns her kindergartners loose on a variety of programs that call for children to rhyme words and do simple addition.

"It's a great opportunity for children to practice or reinforce a skill," Zink says. "It allows me, the teacher, to meet a wide range of needs."

Improved test scores

In the past two years, test scores at Lansdowne have steadily improved, particularly in early reading performance.

County educators, however, are quick to list a variety of factors, besides Lightspan, that have played a role, ranging from a partnership with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra to systemwide changes in curriculum.

Nevertheless, at a recent news conference touting the company's partnership with the school, state schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick and Baltimore County Deputy Superintendent Elfreda W. Massie praised the Lightspan software and the way it reinforces county and state instruction goals.

Lansdowne parent Teresa Gunther sees skills being practiced every night at home by her two daughters, fifth-grader Kelly and seventh-grader Amanda.

'Good practice'

"Every day, the first homework Kelly does is her Lightspan homework, and then she and her sister will compete against each other to see who can do better," Gunther says. "Even though Amanda is older, she still loves it, and that's great because it is good practice for both of them.

"But what am I going to do next year when Kelly graduates to middle school and we have to give it back? It looks like we're going to have to buy either a PlayStation or a computer."

Pub Date: 11/02/98

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