Jan 15 2008

Kentucky Turnaround

An educational overhaul at this small district boosts students' results and improves their tech skills.

An educational overhaul at this small district boosts students’ results and improves their tech skills.

Just mentioning No Child Left Behind in a school will invariably lead to strong reactions as teachers and administrators debate testing, unpaid mandates and possible improvements.

But while Congress and President Bush continue to disagree about the law’s renewal, there’s one section in NCLB that nearly everyone — politician and teacher, parent and administrator, student and IT director — can agree on. That’s the provision that each student should meet a technology proficiency standard by eighth grade.

The reasons for the near-universal agreement are varied, but they boil down neatly to two ideas: Children today should be tech-proficient; and there’s no set standard that NCLB says children should reach.

Unfortunately, that freedom has led to sketchy results nationwide. The U.S. Department of Education doesn’t keep statistics on tech proficiency, requiring only that districts must certify they are working to meet this goal to receive federal Enhancing Education Through Technology grants.

But in at least one small school district in Kentucky, the pursuit of this goal has unfolded in just the way DOE officials would like to see. This district has helped boost reading and math instruction while expanding the technology available in nearly every classroom — all in just the past two years.

Quick Progress

In the fall of 2005, the Gallatin County School District was in trouble. A Kentucky district of four schools and about 1,500 students, its reading and math scores were low and technology was sparse, with six students for every computer.

The district decided to change its piecemeal approach to curricula software, banding together around one product. The results were almost immediate: With universal access to a solid reading and math supplement online, test scores began to rise within eight months.

With grade-specific programs, children felt empowered to participate more in class. Happy with their progress and the technology help they were getting, students put even more effort in, and achievement kept rising.

But much of this work was being completed online, putting a strain on the district’s technology resources. In response, the district created a plan to modernize what it had, to make the technology available to more students, more of the time.

Thanks to a multimillion-dollar state initiative, (Gallatin County received about $117,000), and the foresight of Superintendent Dorothy Perkins to earmark several thousands of dollars for technology, Gallatin was able to kick-start its technology overhaul. The money was spent on several different initiatives, creating three notebook carts with 25 computers each for the upper elementary school and the high school. In the lower elementary school, which covered K–3, two to three new desktops were installed in each classroom, meaning that every room in the building now had between three and five computers. The lower grades also got an additional 30-unit computer lab.

All this work has helped Gallatin move from a 6-to-1 student-to-computer ratio in 2005 to about 2-to-1 today. And with a new school coming online next year for grades four through eight, that number should shrink even more.

New School Starts Tech Ready

The new school will feature 21st- century setups in all 40 classrooms. All teachers will receive notebooks, and the rooms will include interactive whiteboards, document cameras, projectors and an electronic writing tablet. In addition to two student computers in every room, the school will share two computer labs and four notebook carts. The district is buying 296 computers for its new building alone.

And with wireless points in every classroom, the district is even considering allowing students to bring in their own notebooks to hook into the school network. While most schools frown on this idea, Gallatin has an antivirus check and several security switches that determine if the machine in question has current virus software and software updates installed to potentially prevent any security or virus issue.

As far as it has come, Gallatin district officials are pushing forward to make more improvements, inside its schools and out, to improve learning during school and beyond.

Because the district is located in a rural part of Kentucky, a high percentage of students don’t have a computer at home. Those who do generally lack the high-speed Internet connection that so many interactive sites demand. Looking to tap into the Connect Kentucky program, Gallatin officials will be taking a student survey soon with the hope of creating a compelling state grant application. In addition to working with the Connect Kentucky program, the district is also working with the Gallatin County Public Library on a program that will allow students to take supervised reading tests online and after hours at the library.

Work is also afoot behind the scenes. Because the library software now freely shares information with the district’s new reading software, when a student enters the library and logs in, a ready-made list of books at his reading level is suggested. The software can even tell students if a book will earn them reading points, and can give administrators up-to-the-minute printouts for monitoring both student and teacher performance.

The district works hard to ensure that teachers keep pace with the digital tools they now have in their classrooms. For two days twice a month, teachers gather at a tech lab after school to take courses ranging from How to Use E-Mail to Web Design and How to Update Your Own Computer.

And the district hasn’t forgotten infrastructure or help-desk functions either. The four-school district plans to run a 10-Gigabit Ethernet backbone network and to improve its already admirable downtime statistics. With a two-person repair team, the district acknowledges and repairs the vast majority of its IT problems within 24 hours.

Beating NCLB’s Failing List

While the technology proficiency requirement in No Child Left Behind carries a vague penalty at most, failing to reach the main goals of NCLB — sustained student-testing growth — can bring a school to its knees.

While technically, the list of schools not meeting goals are put on a “Needs Improvement” list, everyone from parents to newspaper editors know the designation screams “Failing School.”

As hard as it may be to keep up the student achievement called for in NCLB, it’s even harder for schools to fight their way off the failing list and get back into compliance. But hard is not impossible, and some schools across the country have been able to manage this transition successfully.

Oakwood Elementary School outside of Lakewood, Wash., is one of the best examples in the country. Oakwood landed on the list in 2003, but better management, more attention to software curricula, and a greater emphasis on reading and math have brought about huge results.

In a school where 92 percent of students receive a free or reduced-fee lunch, the school was able to boost its reading and math scores significantly over five years. From 2000 to 2005, the percentage of students who met reading targets more than doubled, from 28 percent to 74.4 percent. Math scores rose even higher: The percentage of students labeled proficient jumped from 17 percent to slightly more than half.