Donna Witherspoon (right) and Gloria DelOrbe of Good Shepherd Catholic School are hoping that consolidating the school’s technology in one classroom will lead to more in-depth use.

Jul 22 2008

Under One Roof

The difference between amassing technology and actually building a 21st-century school boiled down to one simple ingredient for a parochial school in Florida: location.

The difference between amassing technology and actually building a 21st-century school boiled down to one simple ingredient for a parochial school in Florida: location.

Getting their hands on technology wasn’t the problem for school administrators at Good Shepherd Catholic School in Orlando, Fla. These educators had three carts of notebook computers, interactive whiteboards with response pads and a computer lab. They purchased a leading curriculum software program. They earned the Innovations in Technology award from Catholic Schools for Tomorrow. Their technology inventory stacks up favorably with that of the most affluent public school in Orlando.

Yet even after devoting $100,000 to improving technology from pre-K through eighth grade, principal Pat McNamee continued to see poor results on her teachers’ performance evaluations in the technology integration category. “We hadn’t made enough progress that we could say this is a 21st-century school,” she says.

So McNamee vowed to get to the heart of the dichotomy. It turned out the answer was virtually painless and right under their noses: They needed to consolidate all the tools in one place if they wanted to turn a scattershot program into a cohesive educational plan.

Veering Off Track

The administration at Good Shepherd was committed to the basic building blocks of a 21st-century school. According to McNamee, all of the teachers were trained on the individual pieces of equipment. Some even took refresher courses. The school encouraged staff to take the weeklong summer training from a digital educator the diocese made available, with an emphasis on incorporating the various technologies into classroom lessons. She also scheduled software vendors to come into the school to work with teachers. The expectation, says McNamee, was that her teachers would incorporate technology not only in working with their students, but also in their small-group instruction.

Good Shepherd’s Junior Tech Team, created using select middle school students, helps both teachers and fellow students work through technology problems by offering immediate support.

But when McNamee got out her own grade book to evaluate the return on investment, the teachers came up short of the mark. A handful of teachers did fully integrate the tools into their daily lessons, while others used only a single software program, and another group shunned the Internet altogether. Consequently, the students were receiving a patchwork approach to education, with some gaining whiz-bang skills and others just covering the basics. Who was whom depended on the luck of the classroom assignment.

“Our teachers are not totally comfortable yet with putting the books aside,” notes Donna Witherspoon, the technology coordinator at Good Shepherd. “You know how it is — you go to workshops and are trained in how to use the response pads, and then you get caught up in your lesson planning and go back to your old way of life.” Absence, in this case, only made the brain forget.

The teachers, of course, had a different side to the story. Good Shepherd required its faculty to sign out the equipment and haul it to individual classrooms. It simply wasn’t convenient or expedient to move the technology from one classroom to another, they reported, and therefore this part of the curriculum often fell by the wayside. They had a valid point, says Gloria DelOrbe, the school’s media specialist. “They would give me reasons like ‘I can’t do it because the laptops are always signed out by somebody else,’ ” she notes.

Some teachers whose classrooms were on the second floor struggled to get reliable wireless Internet connections. Others discovered notebooks that didn’t work, and they would have to stop in the middle of a lesson to troubleshoot. When McNamee began cataloging these shortcomings, she agreed that the teachers had valid reasons for why they hadn’t transformed themselves into a 21st-century school over the four-year period.

“I had to make sure that we erase all the areas where teachers can slip through the cracks before I can say, ‘Now there is no way you cannot be a part of integrated technology,’ ” says McNamee. Early in the summer of 2008, she announced Good Shepherd would create a dedicated classroom for its technology and ask the teachers to come to it instead of having the pieces doled out to them. Think of it as a laboratory containing everything students might need to do a presentation, a production, a research project or anything in between.

The Right Course

At first blush, the plan eliminates many distractions that previously bogged down progress. For instance, the most common feedback during teacher performance evaluations was that distributing and setting up notebooks delivered to a classroom was extremely difficult in practice. Having them ready to go at a predetermined location automatically improves time management, says Witherspoon. It also means teachers don’t have to disrupt the lesson by going to the IT department to return faulty cables, substitute notebooks or run other errands. “Now they bring their class into the technology room, and they can go right to work without the wasted time stopping and starting,” she explains.

She also sees a bonus from a behavior management standpoint. “The hustle and bustle of having to distribute everything and bring it back in is gone. They won’t have that transition period, which is when students usually play,” Witherspoon adds.

And with all the technology at their fingertips every time they walk into the lab, her educators are much more likely to increase their own knowledge, McNamee says. As they expand their students’ worlds, their own effectiveness at teaching increases.

“There is no downside. The purpose of assessments is to find out what students don’t learn, then pull up your objectives and teach what they don’t know,” she says of Good Shepherd’s philosophy. “A lot of these software programs already do that for the teachers. We are really just trying to pull them away from the old paper-and-pencil method of assessing after the child learns something to give them a grade. We are trying rather to go the route of diagnostic testing, then plan your lessons according to what your students need. A lot of that is done through the programs that will be in this classroom.”

Certainly from the students’ standpoint, such a technology wonderland presents materials in a fast-paced environment that complements how they learn. In turn, they will be more attentive, these administrators predict, and ultimately soak up knowledge. Witherspoon is planning to look at cooperative group learning as well, so students can teach each other new skills.

Keeping the Rhythm

An anonymous donor has helped fund Good Shepherd’s tech purchases in the past. Although school officials know the person’s identity, there’s no advance warning of when a truck with 40 new computers will show up, says Pat McNamee, school principal.

DelOrbe intends to park two of the notebook carts in the dedicated technology room (she’s aiming at as many as 36 computers to handle any contingency). The room will feature the interactive whiteboard, complete with an overhead projector and response pads for the students. It will be fully wireless, including a wireless printer, and students can look forward to using a document camera with their projects. Lower-grade students will have the option of using wand and egg technology because it’s more user-friendly for them.

Officials also drew up blueprints for a production studio stationed in a room next to the main technology lab, a place where upper-grade students will have an opportunity to work with two video-editing cameras, digital cameras and an audio-recording space. Additionally, they’ll still have two notebook carts for teachers to use outside this classroom.

Teachers will book time for their classes using the public calendars on Microsoft Outlook. “That way teachers can see what times are available whether they’re at home or school, and request it. If someone has the time they want, they can put themselves on a wait list,” Witherspoon points out. While she realizes attendance will fluctuate according to the topics and lesson plans for any given week, she would like to see each class trot in an average of once a week. Admittedly, scheduling could get tight in spots — Good Shepherd’s long-range goal is to build one lab for each of its four learning departments.

Administrators also want to invite parents and other adults in the community to take advantage of the classroom’s power. The school sits in a demographic that is rapidly deteriorating economically, so an evening lab that allows volunteers to work with residents in learning how to look for and apply for jobs online would be a boon.

But first, the school must tackle the funding for this project. Good Shepherd has enjoyed the gifts from an anonymous donor for its technology dreams in the past, but this one will require input from other sources in the community as well.

McNamee is quite ready to hit the Rotary Club meetings and knock on corporate doors to talk about the opportunity this presents for children in the diocese. “More than 50 percent of our population is either Hispanic, Philippine or Vietnamese, but what I want to sell [to] the local community is that we are graduating students and families that are technology literate.

“We’re definitely a diamond in the rough,” she adds. “My advice is to dream big and don’t say you don’t have the money for what you want. That’s not always the answer.”

The “Other” Modern School Movement

Good Shepherd’s attempt to create a totally modern classroom within its school brings to mind the “other” modern school effort — one that began nearly 100 years ago. The so-called Modern School movement took root during the 50 years from 1910 to 1960. During this time, anarchists established 20 schools where children could study in an atmosphere of freedom and self-reliance. All forms of authority were abolished and voluntary cooperation was a main theme. Although the movement and its schools have faded from the scene, a group of people who attended these schools still exists today. Friends of the Modern School, a collection of about 80 former students and others involved in the movement, meet regularly.

One-Room Schoolhouses

Although Good Shepherd’s new setup will be on the opposite end of the spectrum from the old one-room schoolhouse, the idea of having a self-contained learning unit does seem a step back in time.

However, you don’t need a time machine to understand what that experience was like. There are still about 400 such public schools throughout the country, according to One-Room School, a documentary program put together for National Public Radio. One hundred years ago, nearly 250,000 of these schools housed a single teacher with students in multiple grades.

These schools today range from the seven-student Monhegan Public School, on Monhegan Island, Maine, to the 13-student Death Valley public school in California. Monhegan Island is 10 miles off the coast of Maine, and only 50 people live there year-round. Yet two-thirds of their taxes go to running the school and employing teacher Sarah Caban.

Source: The One-Room School, www.theoneroom