April 05, 2020

At Brewer High, a computer is the tutor

BREWER – There’s a new teacher at Brewer High School, and students are loving it.

PLATO, a computer program that allows students to work independently, helps students make up classes or learn new skills to make them better students.

“I don’t like sitting in a classroom and being lectured by a teacher. I’m more hands-on,” senior Kristen York, 17, who is taking two PLATO courses, said Wednesday while sitting in front of a computer in the PLATO classroom. “It’s very helpful. The computer will talk to you, but it doesn’t lecture you.

“Everybody has a different learning ability,” she added. “It’s just easier to learn.”

York is taking a PLATO credit-recovery course during a study hall to replace an English class she failed, and she’s staying after school to take a PLATO skills course.

PLATO offers a total of 33 courses, including advanced algebra, trigonometry, social studies and vocabulary and reading comprehension that align with the high school’s curriculum. The courses were selected by school administrators.

To earn credits, students must complete 60 hours of course study and earn a minimum of 80 percent mastery on tests.

“Some students are doing it for credit recovery and some students are doing it for skill building,” Julie Hackett, Brewer School Department director of instruction, said Wednesday. “It serves the gifted population and students with needs.”

Students enrolled are given a PLATO account with their own unique password that allows them access to the program.

“It logs everything,” Kristen said, while demonstrating how easily the program works. “You usually do a practice, a review and a mastery test.”

“If you get two [questions] in a row wrong, it locks the test and you have to go back and review,” she added later.

“The computer is waiting for you to answer,” Superintendent Daniel Lee said Tuesday. “It really engages the learner.”

When students enter the classroom, they sit at one of 15 computers and wear headphones, which helps to keep students focused, guidance councilor Ronel Delano-Ellis said Wednesday.

“It’s a great program,” she said. “For the most part, they’re attentive and quiet. They’re engaged.”

The students also get positive reinforcement from the program, York said.

“It motivates a lot. At the end of an assessment, you get a printout called an ‘accomplishment.’ It makes me feel good” to receive one, she said.

The program also gives a gold star to those who complete a section, displays a circle for work that needs to be done, and gives a half-filled circle for work that is begun.

Without PLATO, students who fail a class would have to retake the class, go to summer school, do correspondent makeup work or take an adult education class, Delano-Ellis said.

Other schools in the area that use PLATO include Eastern Maine Community College, Hampden Academy and Ellsworth High School. The Alpha Classroom in Brewer, formerly the Alternative Choices for Teens program, also is using the program.

The software was purchased from PLATO Learning Inc., an educational software company based in Bloomington, Minn., for about $37,000. The funds were allocated from the designated technology funds issued by the state.

In Brewer, PLATO first was used during summer school and has been so successful that it could possibly be the next big step forward in educating all students, Lee said.

“We’ve had tremendous response from the kids,” he said. “It’s fascinating. The kids love this.”

In the future, the program possibly could be used to teach foreign languages not offered at the high school or virtual labs or any other secondary level course, Lee said.

Students sent home sick possibly could use the software to keep up with their classmates, he added.

“This will be a great tool for us,” he said. “They like to learn this way.”

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