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Returning to a Verizon Innovative Learning school in Harlem, three years later

Helping P.S. 171 increase engagement and academic success.


Bryce Chapman looks up from his work in science class. (Photos: Michael J. LeBrecht II)

Maria Rodriguez’s eighth grade science classroom is buzzing. The students of Harlem’s P.S. 171 are prepping for a field trip to Mount Sinai Hospital to learn about CPR. Student Jaydin Rosario stands next to Rodriguez’s desk and holds up his tablet to show her a 3-D model of a cell. He plans to recommend the model to classmates who want to do more than just read about it in a book. “That may be dry for a lot of students,” Jaydin says.

Today, P.S. 171’s access to devices, data and cutting edge STEM capabilities—like Jaydin’s 3-D modeling—is a cornerstone of the P.S. 171 curriculum and an ideal representation of digital inclusion. But three years ago, it was a new phenomenon. We’d visited the school back in 2017, just after the launch of Verizon Innovative Learning and met with students, faculty and administrators to see how they thought the program would shift their educational experience. (You can read the story here.) Now, three years later, we thought we’d drop in for a visit to see how the program has impacted the way teachers teach and students learn.

Principal Dimitres Pantelidis, surrounded by graphs that chart his students’ success. (Photos: Michael J. LeBrecht II)

Massive Impact

Inside Principal Dimitri Pantelidis’s office, the walls are covered with colorful charts, graphs and posters outlining increases in student test scores and semester goals. Pantelidis pulls down a chart that outlines the themes that each grade focuses on, such as survival and equality, and explains how teachers develop the curriculum to expand and build on Department of Education goals with custom content and assignments. 

“Our students are getting a better grasp of the material because it’s reinforced through different lenses, says Pantelidis. “I have students who tell me: ‘I can see your staff talks to one another because what I’m learning in English language arts is the same theme I’m learning in social studies.’”

Student test scores and school recognition also show that students are learning more effectively. P.S. 171 is performing in the top 5 percent of all schools in New York state and it sends students to some of the most elite high schools in the city.

Between 2013 and 2019, the percentage of P.S. 171 students testing at the state level of proficiency in math increased from 41 to 74 percent. During the same time period, the number of students who tested at or above grade level in English Language Arts increased from 37 to 73 percent. And in 2018, P.S. 171 won gold in the National Center for Urban School Transformation’s Best Urban Schools Awards.

And others are taking notice. Along the wall in the reception area outside Pantelidis’ office is a three-foot, $50,000 check from “The Ellen DeGeneres Show.” Last year, Verizon and DeGeneres surprised the school’s students by announcing plans to build a Verizon Innovation Lab at the school, which will include access to robotics and virtual reality gear. DeGeneres was so impressed by the work at P.S. 171 that she made her own additional donation to support the students.

Students in Ms. Rodriguez’s class dive into a lesson on their tablets. (Photos: Michael J. LeBrecht II)

Working harder, smarter and more confidently

Three years ago, Ahkiyrah Ramkisoon was one of P.S. 171’s eighth grade students, new to Verizon Innovative Learning. Back then, she marveled about how the tablets made learning “fun” and helped her share work with her peers. Now, she’s able to look back on how the program impacted her schoolwork and how having a tablet helped improve her communication with teachers. 

“I suffer from social anxiety,” says Ahkiyrah. “I don’t like to raise my hand in class. So when I had my device, I was able to text my teacher.” 

One of Ahkiyrah’s former teachers, Jonathan Pollino underscores how vital the tablets have become for opening up discussions between educators and pupils. “Using the tablets, email and Google classroom, our students are able to communicate a little more freely and confidentially,” says Pollino. “For any student who needs extra support or has a question they aren’t comfortable sharing in the class, we’re able to open that line of communication after school and follow up.”

Ahkiyrah’s mom, Shaakiyrah, echoes her daughter’s enthusiasm for the Verizon Innovative Learning. “I feel like the iPad made Ahkiyrah work harder,” says Ms. Ramkisoon. “Before that she was getting straight A’s, but once she got the iPad, it empowered her to do A-plus work.”

Jonathan Pollino, one of Ahkiyrah Ramkisoon’s former teachers, stands beside the school’s latest award.  (Photos: Michael J. LeBrecht II)

The effort Ahkiyrah put in studying math at P.S. 171 continues to reap benefits. An afterschool program for eighth graders enabled her to prepare for the ninth grade Regents math exam. “We used the tablets and it was fun,” says Ahkiyrah. It was also effective: “I needed to get a 75 on the test to be college ready and I got an 82,” she says. Now in 11th grade, Ahkiyrah is taking college-level courses, like statistics, and loving it. 

Pollino was always impressed by Ahkiyrah’s ability to capitalize on available resources, even when Verizon Innovative Learning was just getting started. “At that point teachers were experimenting with the technology,” remembers Pollino. “Ahkiyrah was always able to be a step ahead. For example, even if we didn’t have an app that we wanted students to download for a particular assignment, she would still find one. She was a go-getter.”

Maria Rodriguez has used Verizon Innovative Learning resources to revamp her approach to teaching.  (Photos: Michael J. LeBrecht II)

Beyond books

Rodriguez says that with the resources afforded by Verizon Innovative Learning, more students have a chance to get ahead. “Before we had the Verizon tablets, it was all books,” recalls Rodriguez. “The kids had to take a book home for homework. Now we have an eBook version so they don’t need to carry one.” Even though those weighty tomes are a classic symbol of education, studies show that interactive experiences like video and virtual reality can increase the amount of information students retain and how well they apply it in the future.

“Since we brought the tablets into the classrooms, our students are no longer passive learners with a teacher dictating lessons from the front of the room—they’re active participants,” says Pantelidis.

In the past few years, Rodriguez has shifted from a book-and-lecture focused approach in her science class to a project-based one. These assignments require students to be self-motivated researchers who collaborate to report on important findings like the lead levels in local water and innovative solutions to real-world problems, such as 3-D printing a prosthetic hand.

To offer an example, Rodriguez places several skeletal-like arms on one of her classroom’s long black tables. Last year, a group of students wanted to answer a question: If an accident victim or patient loses their arm, what’s the cheapest material that can be used to replace the limb? They worked together to research solutions, design prototypes and find a 3-D printer to build them. They even built an app to control the hands and demonstrate how they work, and eventually entered the invention into a science fair. “I was so proud of them,” says Rodriguez.

Mya Saito uses her tablet to get a jump start on her homework. (Photos: Michael J. LeBrecht II)

Keeping up with schoolwork

Mya Saito, a current student in Ms. Rodriguez’s eight grade class, still remembers the day the school’s technical lead handed out the tablets. She’d never had a tablet before she received one in sixth grade from Verizon Innovative Learning. She also didn’t have regular Internet access at home, so the data plan, in addition to the hardware, was “way better.” Her morning commute to school from Queens can be as long as 90 minutes and having the device helps her stay on top of her schoolwork, even when she’s on the move.

“Last night I was doing an open house tour of a high school. I also had to eat, shower and do homework. I had to do my homework in the car on my way to get something to eat before going to the open house. Having my tablet, I made sure I had the points I needed to do the homework. I also looked up what science homework I had. It just really worked when I was in the car and on the go.”

Teacher Chris Martino shows off his classroom’s smart board. (Photos: Michael J. LeBrecht II)

A new passion for code

In the foyer outside of Chris Martino’s classroom, several student projects are tacked up on the wall. But these aren’t construction paper collages or book reports. Each printout contains a screen grab and a QR code. When scanned by a phone or tablet, it directs the user to a project page where each student has used code to animate their name, complete with visuals to illustrate their hobbies and likes.

The introduction of Verizon Innovative Learning at P.S. 171 changed how Martino teaches technology. Before gaining access to its resources, he focused on explaining how to use apps like Microsoft Word and Excel. Now he’s also teaching coding, which he wasn’t inspired to do before students could use their devices to take home their work and continue tweaking it.

“If I have a student who doesn’t have a computer at home, they can’t really do some of the things I want them to do,” says Martino. “Now with the tablets and internet access, they can work on their skills and get even better.” 

Jordan Prado connects with his classmates. (Photos: Michael J. LeBrecht II)

Customization is king

Beyond an increase in project-based learning, the tablets also help students give feedback about lessons and tests. Using Plickers, an on-the-spot test and assessment tool, teachers can see how well students are learning in real time. Not only can they collect and analyze data from students in the middle of a lesson, but they can walk through multiple choice questions with them and have conversations about how to arrive at the correct answer, uncovering and fixing problem areas as they go.

That customization also extends to using platforms like Newsela, which curates the articles each student sees on their tablets, tailoring them to what they’re studying and their reading level. The app even helps identify areas for improvement so the teachers know where to focus their energy in lessons.

“In the student surveys about our classes, I see responses that say: ‘It’s fun. It’s enjoyable. It’s clear,’” says Pantelidis. “We want our students to be invigorated by the learning and that’s helped along by the technology and training this program gives the school.”