Oct 31 2006

Tech Shines at Private Schools

Upscale private schools improve their technology offerings in an effort to attract students.

Michael Meehan

ELITE PRIVATE SCHOOLS HAVE MADE their reputations by providing a classical education, stressing the virtues of Chaucer and calculus to each new generation of students. But in a culture permeated by technology, wires are as important as ivy to prospective students and their parents.

“When someone writes a check for $20,000 to educate their child, they expect the best of everything,” says Al Greenough, executive director of the Philadelphia Area Independent School Business Officers Association. “These are sophisticated families who have money and the choices that money brings. They don’t have to settle for less.”

The competition between private schools can be fierce, adds Pat Bassett, president of the Washington, D.C.-based National Association of Independent Schools, which represents 1,200 of the nation’s elite private institutions. Technology, he says, “has created its own kind of arms race.

“In some ways, we came late to the game,” Bassett points out. “Independent schools have been so successful for so many generations that there was no impetus to change—especially without a crisis to engage us. Yet, once our schools turned their attention to technology, they didn’t do anything halfway.”

Private schools “have to be better than the public schools—which sometimes have better funding for this equipment—and better than the other independent schools around them,” Greenough adds.

Today’s private schools recognize how important technology is to students and their parents, and they are moving very quickly to enhance their technological infrastructure, equipment and expertise.

Tough Competition

“Our strategic plan is to make ourselves the most tech-integrated school in the state,” says Colleen Keltos, technology director of Fairfield College Preparatory High School in Connecticut’s Fairfield County. “A lot of times, our biggest competitors are the public schools. Fairfield County public schools are some of the best in the nation, and they have a lot of resources.”

And Fairfield Prep is not alone in its quest to achieve technological excellence. “We see our technical ability as one of the real shining points of our institution,” says Peter Sigmund, chief information officer at Philadelphia’s LaSalle College High School. “We are currently a Microsoft IT Academy.”

To enhance its technology programs and equipment, the William Penn Charter School in Philadelphia, which was founded in 1689 by its namesake, runs a faculty-driven operation, says Director of Technology Michael Moulton. Purchasing decisions—which include smart boards with 72-inch displays; videoconferencing for the science department; and portable, networkable mini-word processors with full keyboards and small screens—were originated by the faculty.

“Seeding a small group of teachers with a new technology without really knowing where it will go is important,” Moulton says. “That’s how you get real innovation.”

Moulton has combined his zeal for innovation with his fiduciary responsibility by choosing a Linux backbone to support Penn Charter’s new distance-learning Web site. The site lets third-trimester senior students doing fieldwork take core courses online. The school’s e-mail also runs on Linux, and Moulton uses OpenOffice, a free open source office suite of software.

Every desktop computer at Fairfield Prep is connected by fiber-optic cables, thanks to its association with its parent organization, Fairfield University.

“We have a backbone that lets us do anything we want to do,” Keltos says. But when teachers apply for technology in their classrooms, she makes sure that resources go to the right spots.

“We try to make sure everything is driven by use,” she adds. “Not every teacher has the same needs in the classroom, so we try to work on an individualized basis.”

That should be the goal, points out Bassett at the National Association of Independent Schools. “Accelerated teaching and customized learning are the real gains of technology,” he says. “Most schools aren’t there yet, and they’re still underutilizing their technology.”

Helpful Students

At LaSalle, Sigmund offsets IT staff shortages with a wellspring of student support. The school offers a four-course IT education track that prepares its students to attain a Microsoft Certified Administrator license. Some students have gone as far as acquiring a Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer license.

Students handle tech support for the school’s 210 desktops and servers, which run on Microsoft XP Professional and Windows 2003 Server, respectively, and on the docking stations in each classroom that let teachers connect their IBM T30 ThinkPad notebooks to the classroom’s multimedia system.

“We utilize our kids in what we call a lab manager program,” Sigmund says. “We allow them to run the network with our network managers.”

When the school recently upgraded its network to deliver Gigabit Ethernet to the desktop, students came in during the summer to help replace the switches and wiring. The school benefited from the free labor, and the students gained experience working with the network.

Web Essential

For the administration and marketing of private institutions, it’s all about the Web. A robust school Web site has become the industry standard.

“It basically is your brand name you’re selling out there,” Fairfield’s Keltos points out. The Web is “how a lot of families find you, and it’s become a central part of our marketing.”

Lake Highland Preparatory School’s Web site has been both a vital recruitment tool and a way to let parents see how their children are doing, says Technology Manager Carolyn Stewart. But during the tempestuous hurricane season of 2004, the Orlando, Fla., school’s Web site became the nerve center of the school.

“We contacted all the radio and television stations, but we found it difficult to get any kind of detailed information out using traditional media,” Stewart recalls. The school created a smaller “subsite,” which is hosted in Michigan, to alert families who had evacuated—many to other states—of the school’s condition after the storms and to let them know when classes would start again.

Lake Highland lost only eight days to the storms, in contrast to the weeks lost by some nearby schools. “Parents really came to appreciate our ability to keep them informed during that kind of crisis,” Stewart says.

Among the schools enhancing their Web sites is Fairfield Prep. In fall 2005, each teacher will have a Web page on the school’s Web site, says Keltos. Students already have their own e-mail accounts.

Web fundraising has become a standard as well, often raising money for new technology purchases. Web site visitors can take virtual tours of capital projects under way and see how close the institution is to meeting its goals. The Web site also lets donors see how their contributions have been put to use.

The common thread that seems to link private schools is an outside-the-box approach that allows for rapid adaptation and targeted adoption. “We don’t have to go through a ton of politics to get things done, and that makes it a lot easier to do our jobs,” LaSalle’s Sigmund says.

Michael Meehan is a freelance technology writer based in Brookline, Mass.

Winning the Education Game

When the morning bell rings at Lake Highland Preparatory School, it’s time for the fun and games to begin. Second-semester computer science students in Brian Scarbeau’s Honors Programming II class will each create a functional PC game.

“This is the first time I’ve tried it, and I’m excited to see how it goes,” Scarbeau says. “Skills don’t change. Basically, it’s programming applications that have changed. Game programming requires a student to have computer science, math and science skills. It’s a different approach to learning how to program an application.”

Through the game assignment, Scarbeau has been able to incorporate Java programming and Microsoft’s Visual Studio.NET programming environment to show students how far they can take the skills he’s teaching them.

In computing’s early days, students were more likely to delve into the operating code. That “mechanic’s instinct” is largely missing in today’s students, he says.

“What we have now is a point-and-click generation that expects something to work as soon as they touch it,” Scarbeau explains. Game development forces students to look below the surface to see how things work—to expand the way they think.

And once students start, they’re hooked, Scarbeau notes. “I’ve got this one kid I can’t [get] out of my lab,” he says. “He doesn’t even eat lunch. Instead, he’s in here.”