Preparing Students for a Changing Future: How One New York School District Restructured Its Educatio

We hear it again and again: the old ways of teaching arenít as successful as they used to be. While this may be a bitter pill to swallow, thereís no doubt that we must take heed and try to restructure schools and the way we teach our children today. As a superintendent, my main focus is to work closely with the school district and community to develop new and creative approaches to successfully teach our students and prepare them for the future.

My school district, South Huntington, located in Long Island, N.Y., is like so many other districts in the nation. Our students come from a broad array of ethnic and socio-economic backgrounds, and we are faced with shrinking state budgets that force us to make do with less. But what sets South Huntington apart is our long-range plan, which includes some exciting changes, including the option of un-graded, inter-age classrooms, instruction which makes use of higher-order thinking skills, cooperative problem-solving, and the increased use of computers to deliver top-notch instruction to both classrooms and homes.

Despite funding shortfalls, we are aggressively pursuing our goals. They include:

  • Placing high value on staff contributions and outcomes;
  • Involving the entire community in education;
  • Rethinking the way learning happens; and
  • Preparing students for the workforce.

Our plans may appear lofty, but we have discovered they are absolutely attainable if we can get everyone involved, energized and focused on them. If we can involve the community and help them understand that their support of schools benefits everyone in the long run, then we have cleared our biggest hurdle. From that point forward, we can begin to rethink the way learning happens and ultimately reach our goal of better preparing students for the workforce.

Changing What Happens in the Classroom

The way I look at it, we are seeking nothing less than a paradigm shift in education, because basically we have no choice. Schools must change. We have seen that the old ways of educating young people simply are not relevant to the projected demands of the 21st century.

So how do we go about changing the culture of the classroom? We need to start the process by asking ourselves a fundamental question: Who is the focus of instruction? Is it the teacher standing in front of the classroom lecturing didactically? Certainly not. Clearly the focus should be on the student.

Once we re-establish the focus, we need to consider how we can best educate and assist todayís students. In my estimation, we need to prepare them to face a future of fast-paced technological change, where they will need to be adaptable and flexible. Thus, the schools of today must not focus only on the acquisition and retention of facts, but on the processing of information and application of skills. Our students must first learn how to acquire information and then what to do with it once they have it. 

Technology as Tool for Learning

Technology, used wisely, is a tool for acquiring these skills. But this tool is only truly useful if the school administrator understands the systemís concept of implementation and the teachers know how to make it work for their students in the classroom.

That is one reason we are bringing more computer-based instruction into our classrooms. Every elementary school classroom in South Huntington is equipped with five computers, including a teacher presentation station with a 27-inch monitor.

Key to the success of our computer-based instruction is SuccessMaker, an interactive, state-of-the-art educational software package from Computer Curriculum Corp. (CCC). This comprehensive courseware provides our students with individualized instruction, and provides our teachers with tools to manage that instruction and monitor student progress.

Through its use of multimedia with sound, animation and video, SuccessMaker brings reading, mathematics and science to life for our students, enabling them to learn basic skills as well as critical thinking and open-ended exploration. For example, the science and math components enable our teachers to use simulations as a vehicle for research and experimentation.

The courseware also allows students to work at their own pace, using the learning style that suits them best. Similarly, teachers can match their teaching styles. They may utilize the presentation stations for small-group or whole-class instruction; they may let their students work independently at the computers, or they can act as a ìlearning coachî to help guide students over rough spots or point them toward extended learning activities.

We have great expectations from our investment in technology and software -- in both the quantifiable measurement of students acquiring basic skills, as well as the qualitative benefits of increased student enthusiasm for learning and broadening their exposure to todayís technologies.

We complement our use of SuccessMaker with productivity software like Microsoft Office, which is used in conjunction with all applications, and with Internet access, which is used as a primary source of data for English and Social Studies classes.

Exposing students to these types of computer-based resources is becoming more important than ever as the job market shifts from an industrial and manufacturing base to one emphasizing information jobs. Indeed, we see this shift in our own local economy, and we are committed to ensuring that students acquire skills that will prepare them for employment once they leave school.

As someone who was in the business world, I am well aware of how problems are solved within corporations. Employees meet in conference rooms to solve problems. They discuss what resources are available to help and then they determine an appropriate solution.

If this is the way things work in the ìreal world,î then why do we let students sit alone, toiling away at a true/false test in silence and sometimes frustration, hiding their answers from their classmates? It just d'esnít make sense. Instead, they should be encouraged to work in teams to identify problems and collaboratively determine solutions.

Our Teacher Training Component

New approaches to instruction like collaborative learning and cooperative problem solving can only succeed if teachers support the restructuring plan. I am aware that many districts have found this to be a major stumbling block, in essence, a human barrier to the integration of technology in the classroom. There is a valid reason for this: most teachers do not feel they will receive adequate support and preparation needed to implement changes in their classroom.

This was not the case in our district, primarily because we made a commitment to providing support. Beginning in the spring and prior to installation of the computers, educational consultants from CCC conducted comprehensive training for teachers and our on-site staff.

Now that the technology is in place, we provide ongoing CCC training that includes ìhands-onî workshops to demonstrate how teachers can achieve the best learning results using their courseware, as well as training in the use of other computer-based resources to implement the curriculum.

In addition, South Huntington is annually providing 60 teachers with computers to improve their skills at home. In recognition of the value of a teacherís personal time, we also plan on compensating those teachers who choose to go online in the evenings to help students with homework. Their extra time and commitment is highly valued.

Making the Home-School Connection

An important aspect of our districtís restructuring was the realization that the instructional day for students d'es not simply end when a student leaves school. We now have the technological resources at our disposal, coupled with the vast capabilities offered by the Internet, to extend learning to the home.

To investigate and document the potential of bringing computer-based learning into the home, South Huntington School District is one of 10 pilot sites nationwide to implement CCCís HomeReach, which extends the use of SuccessMaker software into the home for both student and adult courses. The HomeReach package -- a subset of SuccessMaker -- comprises reading, math, early learning and reference software for grades K-8. It will track studentsí learning progress both at home and at school to provide teachers and parents with absolutely current data on mastery. Thus, it enables parents to be actively involved in their childrenís education, and gives them a chance to broaden their own educational experiences as well.

Building Community Support

This educational restructuring plan, as you may have guessed, came with a substantial price tag. Because of funding shortfalls from the state government in recent years, we had to turn to the community to seek a 3.5% increase in our overall budget. As budgetary sales pitches go, this one was relatively easy: the community approved our increase without resistance. Our secret? We pointed out the tangible benefits that lay in store for the community as a whole if it invested in a strong education program.

As part of our restructuring plan, it was our intent to open our schools and share the new technology with various community groups. Community service clubs supported the plan because their members could avail themselves of the technology. Employees of a new mall were invited to use the computers and software to sharpen their reading and math skills. And local realtors threw their weight behind the plan because they understood the correlation between a high-quality school district and higher property values.

We were successful in building community support because we positioned the restructuring plan as a community investment in which we all shared in the profits. And like any other group of investors, we could all offer ideas and input for the direction that investment would take.

Getting Innovative With Funding

In keeping with our progressive plans for classrooms in South Huntington, our approach to financing was equally untraditional. Instead of asking voters to approve the standard 20-year bond issue, we suggested they consider a five-year technology leasing arrangement instead.

We realized that all technology carries an obsolescence factor, and didnít believe it was right for voters to continue to pay for a computer system long after it had ceased being useful for school purposes. By leasing computers, we could stay a step ahead of the technology curve, and at the same time, be able to give back to the community still very worthwhile computers.

Under our arrangement, when the lease expires, the 1,300 microcomputers now being installed will be turned over to the community on an as-needed basis. Schools will then begin another lease on all-new technology with no increase in the budget!

Keys to Success

Granted, what works for one school district considering a sweeping restructuring may not work for another. But having gone through the experience, I realize how critical certain elements of the process can be to its ultimate overall success.

My advice to other school districts contemplating restructuring is to start by evaluating those districts that have put in place the kind of project youíd like to pursue. Fully understand both the potential for problems and the options for solutions before you start the project. Plan a site visit to talk about implementation, focus, funding, ongoing support and other relevant topics. Bring along a team comprised of the participants -- teachers and administrators, of course, but more importantly, students and members of the community should be included as well.

Invite as many different community members as possible to the site visit, and if they canít physically accompany you, ask if they will act as your ìsounding boardî for when you return.

If you can introduce many different perspectives into the planning process from the start, youíll ultimately be able to make a more well-rounded recommendation to the school board. That recommendation will reflect the various voices of the community and will naturally stand a better chance of getting approved. Remember, if it takes a village to raise a child, it definitely takes a community to educate a child.
 

Gerald Lauber has backgrounds in academic, technological and corporate experience. He has been superintendent of schools in several New York districts (Elmont, Levittown , Half Hollow Hills Schools in Melville), implementing technology-based reforms. He has also been CEO, during which he developed a perspective on what schools must do to prepare their charges for the workplace. Lauber has written extensively for educational and news publications. E-mail: drgerry078@msn.com
 

Products mentioned:
SuccessMaker, HomeReach; Computer Curriculum Corp., Sunnyvale, CA, (800) 227-8324, www.cccnet.com

This article originally appeared in the 03/01/1997 issue of THE Journal.

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