Lessons Learned: An Inside Look at Four of the Top Technology School Districts in the Nation

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There has been much debate about the great digital divide that separates those schools that can afford the latest technological resources and those that can't. The Ohana Foundation believes this divide can be conquered through the collaboration of educators, researchers, businesses and opinion leaders. The foundation is a nonprofit organization whose mission is to unlock the opportunities of learning for all children through technology. The Hawaii-based organization envisions a world in which all students and teachers have access to quality educational tools. To recognize those who have successfully bridged the digital divide within their own communities, the Ohana Foundation created the Technology and Education Leadership Awards. In October 2000, the Ohana Foundation honored the best of the best in technology education at the National School Boards Association Technology & Learning Conference in Denver, Colo. Twelve school districts from around the country were selected as national finalists to showcase their technology programs.

 

Award Eligibility and Selection

To gain a better understanding of the state of technology in our nation's schools - and identify true leaders in the field - the Ohana Foundation commissioned the Center for Information and Communication Sciences at Ball State University in Indiana to conduct a thorough study of the nation's schools. The study represented the culmination of five years worth of research on the impact of technology on educational excellence. The Ball State University researchers evaluated public and private schools from across the nation. And researchers subsequently interviewed hundreds of educators, consultants and other experts, including representatives from state departments of education in all 50 states. After an initial screening, researchers conducted additional due diligence interviews to better understand how these candidates incorporated technology into their school system. From this research, three school districts from each of the 50 states were selected as the best in their state. After additional evaluations, the list was pared to 50 finalists, which was narrowed to 12 national finalists.

To be eligible, school districts had to have successfully demonstrated the integration of a variety of technological tools, such as the application of video, audio and digital technologies, as well as distance learning. Winners shared the philosophy that networking was an important part of innovation and were dedicated to the idea that connectivity leverages the power of technology. In addition, each school district displayed leadership qualities by demonstrating the willingness to take risks. Because technology for its own sake is no solution to the needs of education, the school districts also fully understood the importance of integrating technology into their curriculum. Finally, teacher training had to play an important role in technology implementation.

Technological Leaders in Education

From Anchorage, Alaska to Opelika, Ala., the 12 national finalists stand out as technological leaders in education. And from these 12 finalists, four outstanding school districts were named national winners of Ohana Foundation's Technology in Education Leadership Awards. Here are the four winners and their stories:

 

Wilson County School District - Wilson, NC

Wilson is a rural, agricultural community located in Eastern North Carolina. Wilson County Schools serve more than 12,000 students in its 23 schools. With more than 4,000 PCs and 73 servers, the district's technology program - seeded with $5 million from the county - is an integral part of Wilson's instructional program. "Technology integration is the key to student success," says Dr. Lane Mills, assistant superintendent for accountability and technology services at Wilson County Schools. Technology is helping to strengthen the link between instruction and achievement, he says. In five years, district test scores have gone from about 60 percent of students in grades 3-8 achieving on grade level for reading and math to 80 percent in 1999-2000.

Teachers from every grade level and curricular area participate in summer technology integration projects. These teachers are paid a stipend to create technology-based lesson plans that are aligned with North Carolina standards. To date, teachers at Wilson have created 11 volumes of multimedia lesson plans that are available on CDs, notebooks, the network and, soon, the Internet. All of Wilson's classrooms have at least two PCs, and Internet access is available in 81 percent of the classrooms in the district. For the past five years, the district has provided free home dial-up Internet access for all staff through a cooperative agreement with East Carolina University. Another piece of Wilson's technology integration puzzle is Project T.E.S.T. (Technology Empowering Students and Teachers), which started about four years ago and first targeted the lowest-performing schools in the county.

Project T.E.S.T. helps improve reading, writing and other skills. Based on the integration model that supports state and national technology goals, the project sustains staff development, integrated lesson plans, the use of student mentors, and the accessibility of telecommunications and multimedia tools. Through Project T.E.S.T., participating students receive 25 hours of technology training. These students have laptops available for checkout, as well as digital cameras, digital projectors and CD recorders. They also serve as student mentors, even assisting teachers with technology-related projects. To date, 36 students have served as mentors and more than 1,700 students have participated in the project.

Wilson leadership also realized that if educators weren't comfortable using technology and didn't understand how to use it, there was no way they would make technology part of their daily routine or integrate it into the curriculum. So during the last five years, more than 100,000 hours were devoted to staff development for about 1,600 teachers and administrators. A Summer Technology Conference is also held each year in the local schools, which allows teachers to earn continuing education units. The free, weeklong event provides courses covering all technology skill levels.

 

Central Columbia School District - Bloomsburg, Pa.

The four buildings of Central Columbia School District are located in a campus setting in Bloomsburg, Pa. The district serves 2,150 students who live within 77 square miles in Central Pennsylvania. In 1994, Central Columbia began a comprehensive strategic planning process. A subcommittee within the strategic planning team looked specifically at the technology curriculum area within Central Columbia to determine its direction. Harry Mathias, superintendent at Central Columbia, says: "We felt if we didn't have a plan in place to put technology in the hands of students, we would be aimless."

Federal grants helped the district purchase equipment to provide distance learning opportunities. Both the middle and high schools have Picture-Tel equipment and TV studios, and each classroom is equipped with drops necessary for full-video conferencing. A wide area network connects Central Columbia with Susque-Net, a consortium of school districts, Bloomsburg University and the Central Susquehanna Intermediate Unit. Through Susque-Net, named for the Susquehanna River Valley where Central Columbia is located, the district can provide fringe courses, such as Latin II, Japanese and upper-level mathematics.

"Students connect to the world through distance learning," Mathias says. Seven Tech Prep programs, including Communications Technologies and Management Information Systems, link curriculum paths of 11th- and 12th-grade students at Central Columbia with post-secondary institutions, such as the Pennsylvania College of Technology in Williamsport. "Our curriculum is linked with their curriculum for seamless integration - all the way to grade 14," says Mathias. And advisory committees meet regularly with members of the business community to find out what they will require of the future workforce, linking our students to where the jobs are, he says.

Another key to Central Columbia's success is an elaborate staff development program. "In order for your technology to work within your district, you must have very good staff development," Mathias says, pointing out that development opportunities are for all staff and not restricted to professional development. Each year, Central Columbia spends about $25,000 in staff development for 265 staff members, including 143 teachers. After-school mini courses are available, and every teacher in the district has their own Individual Education Program for technology training. There's a computer in all of the district's classrooms, and every student has Internet access. When the district got serious about its technology program, they put in a solid backbone - the best that it could at the time and far better than what was necessary, says Mathias. "Now that wireless technologies are really starting to have an effect, we are able to grow," he says.

 

Anaconda School District - Anaconda, Mont.

Anaconda School District is located in a small community, nestled in the valley of the Rocky Mountains in Montana. In 1980, about 2,700 students were enrolled in Anaconda Public Schools compared to the 1,500 students today. "We saw technology as being critical to the future of our students," says Kim Buryanek, principal, Anaconda Senior High School. "The school board made a commitment to technology, even though our students probably won't stay here because there's just not a lot of employment opportunities."

Anaconda's goal was to provide students with access to information using a wide variety of technologies. In turn, Buryanek says, this created students who are technologically literate and have marketable skills. Though Anaconda's push toward technology began in earnest in 1990, today, the ratio of students to computers is 3-to-1. Every teacher in the district has a computer for grading and administrative tasks. Students become familiar with computer keyboards in kindergarten and begin to learn word processing skills in second grade.

The district's middle and high schools are physically connected with fiber optic cables, and can share applications, Internet and video conferencing. There are individual TV, VCR and TV-PC connections in each of the elementary school classrooms and in the three high school labs. Students learn CadKey and AutoCAD in drafting classes; HyperStudio is used for creating presentations, while PowerPoint is used extensively in English, government and speech classes; and automated accounting systems are taught as well. A 14-bay CD tower provides network access to electronic government research tools, history programs and other encyclopedias. Anaconda also re-cently became a Cisco Network Academy that allows students to participate in a two-year program working toward certification. "This will allow students in the program to enter the workforce as highly trained information technology workers," says Buryanek. "We're installing five ZapMe computers in the library that provide a satellite-based Internet access. We've purchased an additional CD-ROM tower that allows caching of CDs to a hard drive, which increases performance and allows for better management of the resources."

In addition, the school district is currently in the process of connecting all of its schools with fiber optic cables to allow for a higher bandwidth access. "This will allow us to continue management of remote schools from the high school," says Buryanek. A satellite downlink enables distance learning with foreign language and advanced mathematics instruction. Since 1990, distance learning opportunities were made available for Anaconda students. Classes ranged from Russian and Japanese to advanced calculus and consumer law. Anaconda's curriculum committee continues to evaluate new software in specific subject areas to provide the best learning environment for its students.

Beaufort County School District - Beaufort, SC

Beaufort County is a mostly rural area of the South Carolina low country. The Beaufort County School District has 17,000 students, welcoming 500 to 600 new students each year. "We're utilizing technology to change the way our children learn and the way our teachers teach," says Dr. Steven Ballowe, deputy superintendent of Beaufort County School District.

Beaufort County School District began its efforts as a national technology pioneer in the mid-1990s, when it began installing $10 million in new technology throughout the county's schools. It was intent on bridging the local digital divide through its Learning with Laptops program. The idea behind the program was to provide laptops to any interested middle school student, regardless of economic status. To make this dream a reality, the district created a nonprofit organization called The Schoolbook Foundation to subsidize needy families. With this assistance, more than half of the county's students who come from families that qualify for free and reduced-price lunch programs have received laptop computers. An independent study indicated measurable improvements in academic achievement since this program's inception. Results showed that students in the laptop program who qualified for free or reduced lunches, outperformed nonlaptop students who did not receive lunch subsidies.

Beaufort used a multiphase approach in implementing the new technology. Every school had to conduct a needs assessment for teachers' technology literacy. A plan had to be developed and approved by the district before being permitted to move to Phase II, staff development. During Phase II, teachers began thinking about instructional applications for how the technology would be used. Technology funding was not granted until Phase III, when schools determined how the technology would be used for instructional purposes. "Our community has continued to support our budget so we can provide new monies to update all of the infrastructure, hardware and software as determined by the individual school improvement councils," says Ballowe.

For more information on the Ohana Foundation, visit www.ohanalearning.org/indexpc.html

Ohana Foundation's 12 recipients of the first Technology in Education Leadership Awards:

Anaconda School District - Anaconda, Mont.*
Anchorage School District - Anchorage, Alaska
Beaufort County School District - Beaufort, S.C.*
Central Columbia School District - Bloomsburg, Pa.*
Henry County School District - Collinsville, Va.
Little Falls School District - Little Falls, Minn.
Malvern Special School District - Malvern, Ark.
Nixa R-II School District - Nixa, Mont.
Opelika School District-Opelika, Ala.
Red Hook School District-Red Hook, N.Y.
Shoreline School District-Shoreline, Wash.
Wilson County School District-Wilson, N.C.*

* Indicates top winners.

This article originally appeared in the 11/01/2001 issue of THE Journal.

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