Oct 31 2006

How Technology Helps Keep Kids in School

It’s not easy to get an at-risk student excited about going to school. But the creative use of technology can make the difference between succeeding in school and dropping out.

Remember your high school yearbook with all your classmates’ smiling faces? In many alternative schools, yearbooks are more than just a trip down memory lane. They can serve as motivational projects for students in danger of dropping out.

Take Hauke Alternative High School. In the Houston-area community of Conroe, Texas, students produce a high-quality, low-cost yearbook in-house. Although creating a yearbook is often considered a journalism or marketing course, it is taught as a technology course at Hauke. Students learn journalism and marketing skills, but they also learn how to design pages using publishing software, scan and edit pictures, shoot photography with digital cameras and burn the final product to CDs—all under an 18-week deadline.

Alternative schools, which assist students in completing high school by gearing study around their unique needs, come in many sizes and shapes. Some concentrate on students with academic, family or behavioral issues, while others focus on vocational education.

Many programs also offer classes and services such as child-care and parenting classes, as well as General Educational Development (GED) classes. Common characteristics of alternative schools include smaller classes, lower student-to-teacher ratios, flexible hours, greater access to counselors and technology programs to motivate students.

At Hauke, the yearbook course lets students take on leadership roles that they probably wouldn’t have had in their former schools. “Who wouldn’t want to be in yearbook?” says eleventh-grader Ashley Nabors. “It lets you do something more creative in school and keeps you involved.”

Making a Positive Impact

The use of technology prowess in learning also has a positive impact on how the students feel about themselves. “You don’t feel stupid asking the same question over and over again,” explains Chakeitha Johnson, a 17-year-old ninth-grader at Hauke. “The computer doesn’t get mad at you for going through a tutorial three or four times.”

Computer-assisted learning, personal digital assistants, notebook computers and other technology tools appeal to the wide range of learning styles that at-risk students exhibit. Many of these students don’t do well in lecture-style classrooms.

A teacher working with at-risk students must focus a child with attention issues, engage the antisocial genius and provide stimuli for a depressed student—all in a single classroom. Effective use of technology can help achieve those goals.

Software programs geared toward rote learning offer help with remediation and test preparation. Mary Douglass, a counselor at Prospect Alternative High School in the San Francisco area, says that more than half of her students enter with reading skills rated below the eighth-grade level. Prospect uses a self-paced remediation program that she says “helped us make great progress in improving student reading abilities.”

Most vocational-based alternative schools focus on training students for jobs after high school. California students can access vocational training through the Regional Occupation Program. Schools in that system offer computer-aided design programs and engineering programs in areas such as diagnosing and repairing problems in car systems.

Many alternative schools also place students in professional settings where they can gain hands-on technology experience. Dan Orman, principal of Buckner Alternative High School near Louisville, Ky., says students from his school, and throughout the district, participate in an intern program that places them with architects, physicians and other professionals.

“Like all our high schools, students graduating from Buckner must demonstrate computer proficiency,” says Orman. “This is not such an obstacle for kids as it is for the adults working with them. Most kids are proficient with computers by fourth grade.”

Academic alternative high schools and “schools within schools” emphasize the learning and practice of technology skills meant to give students a way to make a living after they graduate. Rather than simply learning applications and other technology in separate classroom settings, students learn to combine multiple technologies in ways that transcend the classroom.

At Metro Boulevard Alternative High in Wichita, Kan., Principal Lori Doyle says that her students must learn to use digital cameras to enhance PowerPoint presentations, and to create the school newspaper and literary magazine. Also, student aides in the school’s Tech Specialist program can earn credit for helping with tech repairs and maintenance.

The school received a $35,000 grant to provide Project Based Education Across the Curriculum. The grant funds provided for a wireless network and notebook computers for students to use in social studies, language arts and technology classes.

At Stratford Comprehensive High School in Nashville, Tenn., the Stratford Information Technology Academy (SITA) “school within a school” program is instilling technological and interpersonal skills in students. On the technological front, the school focuses coursework on networking, hardware and cabling technology, Web design and network operating systems. At the end of the four-year program, students are ready to take exams and get professional certification in several tech areas.

But what may make the most difference to SITA students’ ability to learn is the way they are allowed to learn: on their own, in teams or through a dialogue with teachers. The school’s case-based learning projects help students develop critical thinking skills.

“SITA helps teach young people how technology can help them solve problems,” explains Principal Brenda Elliott. “That, in turn, helps them do a better job managing their own lives.”

Hauke Principal Jo Ann Beken sums up the value of alternatives schools with the following medical analogy: “A hospital has different wings for patients with varying needs, but those needing the most urgent attention will be sent to the intensive care unit. Our campus is like an ICU for students who were unsuccessful in traditional high schools.”

Finding the Funding

Funding can be a hurdle in creating alternative schools. But educators are finding ways around that hurdle.

Much of the technology funding at Buckner comes from outside sources. A local education foundation keeps the school’s technology updated, and Barnes & Noble has donated books, Orman says.

SITA is funded through its school district and a grant from the National Science Foundation, through the Center for Information Technology Education.

Funding can be a hurdle, but it’s a hurdle that can be overcome with some creativity. And it’s worth the effort to help students attain their dreams by giving them a quality education—one that will provision tomorrow’s leaders.

Steve Meeker is director of the General Educational Development Program for Conroe Independent School District in Conroe, Texas. He’s also assistant principal of Hauke Academic Alternative High School. For 12 years, Kelly Witten worked with at-risk students at Hauke. She now teaches computer classes and is the technology coordinator.

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