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Elementary Schools : New York : A Winning After-School Program

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MOST STUDENTS CAN HARDLY WAIT for thelast bell to ring. For New York City Public Schools studentsin Adrienne Wiland's fifth-grade classroom, their eagerness isnot to leave school but to stay in it-- and enjoy the start of aninnovative after-school technology program, where creativitythrives and learning is a collaborative effort.

Wiland uses the ThinkQuest New York City competition as a means of engaging underperforming students in projects that address their weaknesses in English language arts and math. TQNYC is an annual event in which teams of three to six students design educational websites that are evaluated and scored by judges. The entire process of creating websites for the ThinkQuest competition allows these students to experience project-based learning and develop a deeper understanding of specific academic concepts through the combination of technology, research, literacy, and imagination.

Wiland's after-school program began as part of a federally subsidized New York City Public Schools initiative that targeted students performing below statewide academic standards in 96 schools throughout the boroughs of Brooklyn and Queens. The Enhancing Education Through Technology (EETT) grant that funded the initiative expired last year, but local school funding has kept Wiland's program alive and well-- and a source of motivation for its spirited participants.

"Students who hear, see, and interact not onlyremember what they have learned, but they also understand it better."

When asked about their efforts, six students who developed On Your Mark! Get Set! Gold!-- a ThinkQuest project about the Gold Rush era-- were eager to talk about their twice-a-week meetings and hours spent researching, storyboarding, writing, editing, and rewriting. They were even more eager to demonstrate their technology-based design efforts, which resulted in a website, original artwork, and animation.

All of the teams involved in Wiland's after-school program conduct online research and e-mail experts to gather information for their projects. For a project called The Great American Patent Caper, one team went even further and took a field trip to the United States Patent and Trademark Office in Washington, DC, documenting the experience on video. The group's efforts resulted in an interactive website designed to engage readers in the history and purpose of the USPTO.

"Consulting with experts was a very important and invaluable part of this learning experience," says Wiland. "I believe that students who hear, see, and interact not only remember what they have learned, but they also understand it better."

Wiland's program was one of many successes born of the EETT grant, which ran from 2004 to 2007. The benefits of the ongoing professional development, targeted classroom support from technology specialists, greater access to technology, and additional after-school programs supported by the grant were felt across the Brooklyn/Queens region. Assessment scores within the targeted student group grew steadily during the initiative's three years. For example, the region saw an 18.4 percent increase in the number of students in grades 3 through 8 scoring at or above grade level on the state English/language arts exam and a 22.3 percent increase in the number of students who scored at or above grade level on the state math exam.

Wiland's program paid off another way. The Great American Patent Caper and On Your Mark! Get Set! Gold! took first and second prize, respectively, in the elementary division of the 2007 ThinkQuest New York City competition. Without resources provided through the EETT grant, Wiland's students likely would never have been so excited about their projects or had the opportunity to work with advanced technology in their classrooms.

Jacob Gutnicki, program director of the Brooklyn/Queens EETT initiative, explains that training educators to rethink traditional curriculum the way that Wiland has is a difficult but necessary task. "Districts interested in true technology integration," he says, "must commit, hone, and nurture meaningful staff development resources over the course of several years to support the development of the differentiated skills teachers need to use technology in a rich, content-embedded way."

Dawn Horton, Ellen Meier, and Caron Mineo are staff membersof the Center for Technology and School Change at Teachers College, Columbia University.

This article originally appeared in the 07/01/2008 issue of THE Journal.

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