From left, Joseph D'Aquino, Tony Kline and Donna Hackner aim to give New Millennium's students the best technology education possible.

Aug 31 2009

Developing 21st Century Scholars with a Tech-Focused Curriculum

New Millennium Secondary School offers students a tech-intensive high school education that prepares them for college and their future careers.

New Millennium Secondary School offers students a tech-intensive high school education that prepares them for college and their future careers.

New Millennium Secondary School doesn't have a football team, marching band or a homecoming queen. But it does have a tech-focused curriculum to prepare students for the future, a dedicated teaching staff and a guarantee that every graduate with good grades will be admitted to a local four-year college.

The new charter public high school in Carson, Calif., recently completed its first year with its initial 150-student freshman class, and the experience was unique for them in many ways. The school's 22,000-square-foot campus is located inside a shopping mall, the site of a former technical college. Class sizes are small – just 25 students per class – compared with the average California classroom of 40 to 45 students. Teachers and administrators have high expectations and hammer home the point that they expect every student to complete their homework and excel.

Technology is also a major focus. Students are equipped with netbook computers in their classes. Teachers use technology, such as interactive whiteboards, to enhance the learning process and track student performance. They regularly test students with online assessments to monitor academic growth and identify areas of weakness. And if students need remediation in math or English, teachers assign them extra work on software programs to improve their skills. In fact, after one semester of school, the freshman class's English proficiency went up an average of two grade levels.

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“The students know we don't have football or a homecoming queen, but they know they are getting a heck of a good education,” says Principal Donna Hackner, who previously trained teachers to use educational technology for the Los Angeles County Office of Education.

The school, with an economically and ethnically diverse student body, is the brainchild of Tony Kline, an educator and former deputy director of the Governor's Initiative to Turn Around Failing Schools in California, who now serves as New Millennium's executive director.

Kline's goal is not only to prepare students for college, but also to get them into college. Every New Millennium student must complete one college course before graduation. If they meet benchmarks set by California State University, Dominguez Hills, they are guaranteed admission there, says Kline, who developed the partnership between the schools.

The school's leaders want to ensure students are proficient in core subjects, but also infuse them with virtues such as integrity and social responsibility, and important skills, such as leadership, teamwork and critical thinking. These qualities, combined with technology skills and the desire for lifelong learning, will prepare them for success, Kline says.

“It's about giving them the mind-set that they have to continually pick up new skills to succeed in life,” he says. “They have to be comfortable with today's technology, but also be willing to learn tomorrow's technology to stay current.”

Building the Foundation

The school's first year was a whirlwind. Last summer, Kline hired eight teachers out of a pool of 250 applicants and recruited Hackner to become principal. Faculty members from CSU Dominguez Hills and Santa Monica College had already developed the school's four-year curriculum, so that was in good shape. But the school didn't move into its building until August, one month before school started. The staff worked quickly to get the technology infrastructure in place – about $250,000 in tech equipment – while Hackner gave the teachers a crash course on how to use the technology.

The school's IT consultant installed a wireless network and the school's applications, including an online learning management system and an online grade and attendance tracking system, on four servers.

Half the jobs today require some technology skills. That figure will rise to 77% in the next decade, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

To protect the school, 21 IP security cameras were installed in classrooms, giving the staff live shots as well as recorded footage.

Rather than purchase full notebook computers, Kline and the IT consultant standardized on more affordable netbooks for students. Specifically, the school leased HP 2133 Mini-Notes, which feature an 8.9-inch screen and weigh only 2.6 pounds. The school houses the netbooks on mobile computing carts in the classrooms, so students don't have to carry the computers from room to room, Hackner says.

When students need computer access, they just log on to the school's online learning management system where they can access e-mail and store homework and other files on the network. The software also has a homework drop box, which allows students to turn in theirassignments electronically.

Each classroom is equipped with interactive whiteboards that can be used for multimedia presentations. The school also began using classroom response systems last year, allowing teachers to get immediate feedback on student comprehension and to administer in-class quizzes. Using the system, teachers ask multiple-choice questions, students with remote-control “clickers” give their answers, and the results can be quickly tabulated on the teacher's desktop computer and shown on the interactive whiteboard.

In English teacher Joseph D'Aquino's estimation, the school's first year was successful. Last fall, some students initially did a lot of posturing to see what they could get away with, such as not doing their homework. But when the staff wouldn't let them off the hook, they quickly fell in line.

“The first few months were like extended middle school in maturity, but they started growing up,” D'Aquino says. “They saw the opportunity they had with small class sizes, teachers who care and buildings with new equipment, new desks and no graffiti. They learned it was a good academic environment.”

The word is out that New Millennium has high standards and a heavy workload. But 14-year-old Sara Mulato loves the school for that very reason. She enrolled last year because of its smaller class sizes and its tech focus, and she believes the education she receives there will help her with her dream of becoming a lawyer. Her previous school had only two computers per classroom.

“Teachers have more time to be with students, and the technology is advanced; and for my profession after high school, that's beneficial,” Mulato says.

“It's preparing us for what will come after high school.”

Learning Job Skills After School

New Millennium's after-school program, which focuses on real-life occupations and training programs, also is technology-focused. Besides cooking, dance and fashion-design classes, the school built a sound studio with music keyboards, allowing students to record and produce songs and burn CDs. The school also purchased video cameras and video-editing software to teach students video production.

<p>Max S. Gerber</p>

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