Students at Riverdale’s DuBois Integrity Academy have laptops in every classroom, and third through fifth graders have personal computers they take home to complete assignments and projects. Credit: DuBois Integrity Academy.

Making the Grade: Clayton County charter school focuses on technology

During his 19-year residency in Clayton County, Craig Cason has had plenty of interaction with local schools. His son attended middle and high school there, and Cason pitched in on PTA and civic committees. Those experiences got him thinking about how charter schools could make an impact. And it turned out he wasn’t alone: Clayton resident Stephanie Payne felt the same way.

“We realized there was a great need for innovative thinking around chartering,” he said. “Parents wanted an alternative and the ability to be innovative and make changes. So we spent eight years studying trends and understanding where we could make a difference, and we realized that meant being in the kindergarten-through-fifth grade space. You have to catch students early to get them to start thinking globally and outside the box.”

Cason and Payne teamed up as executive director and principal, respectively, to create the DuBois Integrity Academy, a Riverdale public charter school that opened in August 2015. The STEM-centered curriculum drew 500 students, a number that has now grown to about 650, and there’s a waiting list of about 500 families.

“We grew once word got out that we work to meet kids’ needs by offering differentiated instruction,” said Cason. “We assess them when they come in the door, and we’re teaching children at the level they come to us on. Our biggest advocates are the people who are already here: They tell friends, and every day we have people who want their children to attend.”

The new 30,000-square-foot school, outfitted with connected classrooms and STEM labs, also distinguishes itself by offering Spanish instruction at every grade level, focusing on reading and mathematics, and capping class sizes at 25. In addition, every classroom is equipped with laptops, and 300 third, fourth and fifth graders are issued personal computers they can take home.

DuBois recently partnered with PowerMyLearning, a nonprofit that offers digital programs designed to involve parents in the technology-based learning and to offer more options for teachers by adding educational programs to the laptops. In addition, the program provides workshops for instructors and parents to familiarize them with the online resources and to offer strategies for helping their children with homework and activities.

“We are a technology school; that’s what differentiates us,” said Cason. “And we’ve found that taking the laptops home helps close the digital divide as parents sit down with their children and work on them together.”

Payne points out that the future workforce will demand technology skills. “But we also know that while our students live in a technology world, that may be a foreign language to many parents. This is the best way to get technology into these students’ lives.”

Individual laptops also allow teachers to work with students at various levels, Payne added. “A student may be in third grade but working on math skills at a first- or second-grade level. Teachers can make additional assignments and set up a play list, as it were, for students to master content at their own pace.”

Even kindergartners are introduced to learning technology, said Cason. “They’ve becoming laptop savvy, beyond just using an iPad that’s more for play. Introducing them to laptops gets them started early on mastering typing and motor skills that they’ll need later on.”

Students are selected for the academy through a lottery that takes place on the second Monday in March. Information sessions about the school will be scheduled for February.

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