IT officials Mary Beth Clifton (left) and June Garwin have led their district’s turnaround by paying attention to connectivity and professional development.

Staying Connected

Technology alone won't advance educational goals, so Pennsylvania's West Chester Area School District makes sure connectivity and training are a big part of its upgrade.

Technology alone won’t advance educational goals, so Pennsylvania’s West Chester Area School District makes sure connectivity and training are a big part of its upgrade.

When West Chester Area (Pa.) School District set its sights on becoming a technology-forward district, Director of Information Technology June Garwin began juggling two timeframes: short-term (five to 10 years) and long-term (10-plus years). That’s when reality hit her.

“Technology isn’t the issue as much as information,” she says.

It was an important revelation for a school district that was lagging behind its neighboring districts in technology less than 10 years ago. The school board took a stand against such a negative reputation, and suddenly West Chester’s education system went from virtually no computers to a PC on every teacher’s and administrator’s desk.

But technology alone won’t advance educational goals, as Garwin knows. In order to ensure she isn’t wasting investment dollars, she stresses two goals with every technology purchase: connectivity and effectiveness. Here is a detailed look at both.

Connectivity

Information works best, of course, when it’s communicated, so staying in touch is emphasized within the West Chester Area community. For starters, every K–12 student, teacher and faculty member is assigned a Microsoft Outlook e-mail account. The phone system runs over a fiber network and features an auto-dialer to blast voice messages to all parents in their homes.

Many teachers choose to use an online learning-management system, which allows them to communicate directly with students on announcements, lesson recaps, homework assignments and chat boards. If teachers prefer to build their own Web sites, Garwin supports several template versions, so all they have to do is fill in a template. One teacher uses an online chat feature to communicate with his students in real time whenever a substitute is warming his chair.

Teachers and faculty stay connected through SharePoint, Microsoft’s Web-based collaboration and document-management platform, which they refer to as their data dashboard. “Whenever a teacher or administrator logs on in the morning, their dashboard comes up with internal announcements, reminders on key effectiveness indicators for each grade level, helpful links and discussion boards,” Garwin explains.

And then there’s Intouch Online, West Chester’s parent communication system that keeps adults in the loop on individual students’ classroom assignments, attendance and grades. Gina Lombardi, a parent with two children in the school district, would be lost without it. “It’s very helpful to be able to monitor your children and help them if they need [it]. A lot of times, you won’t get that information,” she says. It also helped when her daughter missed school from an illness, allowing Lombardi to communicate directly with teachers and make sure she and her daughter understood the make-up schedules.

Lombardi typically checks Intouch once or twice a week; as co-chair of the district’s Parent-Teacher Organization Council, she has talked to parents who log on every night. William Bailey, assistant principal of West Chester East High School, also makes this a routine stop every Wednesday, when teachers are expected to update grade posts. “If I see someone hasn’t entered grades for the last month, I know there’s a problem I need to address,” he says.

“Not only does something like Intouch create a greater ability among teachers to use technology, it also transfers into the community at large,” he adds. “People who didn’t buy computers before will now so they can access [this].” In fact, the district has established a program with local corporations to distribute desktops they no longer use to needy families. “It’s not just the upper middle class participating,” Bailey insists. “We’ve done a wonderful job of building a bridge between school, home and the community when it comes to using technology.”

Effectiveness

West Chester uses Aruba’s wireless access points throughout the district and CommVault’s system to back up its data.

Attitude may be the most important ingredient for becoming a tech-forward district, but Garwin admits enthusiasm alone can’t move a district from worst to first. That’s why, following recommendations from expert sources, such as the Michigan Technology Staffing Guidelines, she allots 35 percent of the department’s budget to training and support. After all, “You can’t expect people to use technology if it’s going to be problematic,” she notes.

So the district implemented a five-year replacement schedule for nearly everything in its infrastructure, including computers. During that cycle, each component receives regular maintenance, and as it reaches the end of the timeframe, Garwin evaluates it for effectiveness. “There may be a cheaper solution, a better solution and we might not need it any more,” she explains.

Grants also help. To date, West Chester has twice landed money from the state’s Classrooms of the Future program.

Even with money set aside for training, the district accomplishes much of what it needs by using its own teachers. According to Mary Beth Clifton, instructional technology coordinator, teachers using the technology in their classrooms make the best instructors. “They facilitate our staff development, because the other teachers respect them,” she says. “Many times it’s better to hear from your peers than someone outside the district. They have the same struggles, the same equipment, etc.”

Clifton gathers presenters strictly on a volunteer basis, “because it doesn’t work well when you point fingers at people and tell them they have to do something,” she says. Instead, she invites savvy teachers to write proposals of technology tricks and inside knowledge they’d like to share, and she arranges those into more formal training sessions. Her strategy is spot on, in Bailey’s experience.

“There were a lot of people dragging their feet, not really wanting to change,” Bailey says of the early days. “But technology has built better working relationships. Within my building, we’ve built small communities made of young teachers helping veterans and vice versa.”

Finally, Clifton makes sure the support and training aren’t wasted on the daily scene. She established technology liaisons at each school to serve as resources for teachers, and also to meet with her monthly to share how teachers in that school are building technology into their curriculums. “I’m not looking to see how much someone used a laptop,” Clifton explains. “I want to know what they are doing to improve a lesson on the rainforest — did they use a Web cam? Did they keep the students engaged? After all, we’re getting students ready for the 21st century, not teaching them how to type on a keyboard.”

Freshness Counts

Educational Web sites play by the same rules as commercial ones: If you want traffic, you need to make it dynamic and sticky.

For educators, that means updating their site once a week, says Gregg Festa, director of the ADP Center for Teacher Preparation and Learning Technologies at Montclair State University in New Jersey. “As a parent, I’d like to see it every day. But having been a third-grade teacher, I understand the restraints and that we can’t make it a 24 x 7 job,” he says with a laugh. A weekly schedule is especially doable when teachers use online learning management systems or a template-based system, such as Microsoft Front Page, that doesn’t require teachers to know HTML code.

To drive student and parent traffic, teachers should start with content that helps with homework. For instance, Festa is a fan of two-minute movies featuring the teacher’s voice walking through a math problem on her digital whiteboard, or a recap of the Boston Tea Party’s significance. Even elementary grades can benefit from digital flash cards and word games.

Upper-grade students appreciate discussion outlets where they can share opinions on the course subject. “Usually you can’t cover the subject and give every student in the class an opportunity to weigh in on the topic in a span of 40 minutes,” Festa notes.

Doug Graney, a government and philosophy teacher at Herndon High School in the Washington, D.C., suburbs, does just that at his site. He documents field trips to Pakistan’s embassy or Mount Vernon and current events like anti-war protests and support-the-troops rallies to supplement First Amendment lessons. He follows students’ internship experiences on Capitol Hill. And every two weeks, he sends out e-mail to his students’ parents to inform them of upcoming lesson topics, assignments and special events.

As a side benefit, he invites the local press to drop by, and a few usually pick up stories on students’ activities. “And it provides a scrapbook of my career as a teacher,” he adds. “It’s a lot of work, but it’s a lot of fun, too. Kids like to see their friends on the Web site, and it generates a lot of goodwill toward the school.”

Kiddie Keyboarding

When West Chester Area School District PTO Co-chair Gina Lombardi recently met with a high school senior focus group, she was struck by the difference technology plays in their lives. “We adults were sitting there thinking of this as a tool, but the kids are actually living it. This isn’t a topic; it’s a way of life.”

That’s precisely why educators need to start teaching keyboarding skills long before high school business classes, experts say. “The later you wait, the more prone they are to develop poor technique skills, and then they can never really get proficient at a skill they have to use,” says Janet Goble, the business/keyboarding specialist for the Utah State Office of Education.

So districts should introduce keyboarding curriculum built around basics, such as home row keys and correct finger techniques, in third grade (before that, most children’s hands aren’t developmentally able to type correctly). Focus on speed and accuracy should start by fifth grade, with increasing challenges in those areas through high school.

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Apr 17 2008

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