Logging On With...

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Logging On With... James Richmond

The veteran district superintendent looks to his students' future with stars in his eyes.

James RichmondWHO WOULD DENY the sweet irony of a 70-year-old man stepping into his very own classroom of the future? James Richmond certainly would, if it would mean fast-forwarding the premiere of the digital, domed theater his district has in the works, which has been pushed back to 2013 due to funding snags. "I'll take it as soon as I can get it," says Richmond, the superintendent of Charles County Public Schools (MD), who turns 66 in June. "It will be truly state-of-the-art like no one's ever seen."

He describes a 180-seat, Imax-style structure with interactive seats, surround sound, laser projection, and virtual-reality effects that will transform math and science teaching by immersing students in the cosmos. He says the blueprints alone of what he calls the "digital classroom" are golden: "It's won three national architectural awards and we haven't even built it yet!"

An astronomy lover since childhood, Richmond speaks with the kind of awed, outsized sense of immense possibilities that could well be called Spielbergian: "Can you picture 180 kids in a domed classroom in which through lasers you can project space? It will be almost like you're in a spacecraft. You'll get that feeling like you're flying. You'll get the 'Wow!'"

The project has been in development for the past couple of years with Evans & Sutherland, a Salt Lake City-based computer graphics company that is a leader in digital theater technology. Once the money comes through-- Maryland Sen. Barbara Mikulski has put forward a bill that would provide $500,000 toward what he says is a $3 million effort-- Richmond is aiming to roll out a prototype of the domed theater in a new high school the district has in the works. "You're out in space, the comets are going by-- and the asteroids and the explosions!" Richmond says. "The impact of that will be unbelievable. I'm hoping students will appreciate how vast space is and how little this earth is."

Richmond has been stretching his district forward since the day he took over the top job 13 years ago, after serving Charles County as a history and government teacher, a principal, and an administrator. The first thing he did was gather his staff to take stock of where the district was versus where he wanted it to be.

"We looked out five to 10 years," he says, "and we saw that we couldn't be a world-class school system without the use of technology as a viable tool for our classroom and for our students-- to enhance our teachers' teaching and do all the kinds of things you need to be a top-performing school system. We said, 'Okay, how does technology play a role in what we're trying to do in every area?'"

The answer was elemental: "We needed to ask the people in technology."

Faster than you can cry "Road trip!" Richmond piled his executive team into a van for a drive down to The Research Triangle Park in Raleigh, NC, a business enclave that's home to many of the foremost high-tech companies in the country. Richmond and his staff met with Cisco), IBM, and HP to discuss the use of technology in the classroom. The companies helped them harness their ambitions into a newly crafted technology plan. "We talked about where we wanted to be, and we asked them what resources they might have for us to achieve that," he says.

After returning from the meeting, Richmond took out a multimillion-dollar bank loan to go toward the technology resources that would kick-start the plan. "Good investment," he says. "I'll make the last payment on it this year."

"There are so many things you can do with technology to show kids things that they may not be able to see themselves. If you take the technology and use it, you can open all kinds of worlds to them."

Thirteen years later, Richmond's dedication to technology-infused learning has helped turn Charles County into the district he set out to build. In 2006, it became the first district of such considerable size-- 27,000 students-- to go completely wireless. Meetings between Richmond and his school principals are conducted paperlessly. A data warehouse, built in-house with direction from IBM personnel, now empowers teachers with what they need to make data-driven decisions. Every teacher in the county has an IP telephone in the classroom. Technology tools abound-- projectors, laptops, interactive whiteboards, video streaming-- bolstering and enlivening teaching and learning. Essential instructional materials-- textbooks, lesson plans, and assessments-- in core subjects like algebra, government, history, and English are being put online with buy-in from teachers, who are paid in the summer to push the process along.

"Every district school has the same equity of technology as every other school," Richmond says. "We made sure that we didn't create haves and have-nots." The result is a district that consistently meets adequate yearly progress (AYP) and has taken big chunks out of the achievement gap even while undergoing a major demographic shift, turning from 32 percent minority when Richmond arrived in 1996 to today a 59 percent minority majority.

Richmond's new focus for his students is globalization. "To be a world-class school system, kids have to be connected to the world," he says. "Issues that affect other places in the world, as we've seen with the economic crisis now, affect America. And our kids need to start thinking globally."

What he has in store is a whole new level of distance learning. He says a high school in Charles County has done live classroom exchanges with a school in Penza, Russia, but the videoconferencing tool that bridges the two sites is too crude for Richmond. He wants to use a newer technology-- telepresence-- that would allow for live transmissions with speakers from anywhere on the globe, from major universities and organizations, and make them seem, visually, to be in the same room as the students.

"What I want to do is build a telepresence classroom," he says. "This would be a classroom that would seat about 18 students. For instance, we could get an instructor from a major university to enhance our AP [advanced placement] efforts without the kids ever having to leave or the instructor ever having to come here."

The district has been working with Cisco on the design of the classroom that Richmond says will be the first of its kind. He's hoping to have one built at one of the newer high schools by the opening of the next school year in the fall.

"We think it has endless possibilities," he says. "It would cut across miles, cut across time, and maybe cost. No one's ever done it before. We want to develop it and see if we can make it work." This is quite a long way from how Richmond recalls his earliest stab at technology integration: the Radio Shack computers he purchased as a high school principal back in the 1970s. "They were these huge machines, and slow as the dickens," he says, his Fayetteville, NC-born twang surfacing. "Remember the first ones, the big, huge ones? They weighed 18 tons! They looked like slot machines because they kind of lit up. It's kind of funny when you look back on it, but that was the forerunner of what was to be."

He recognizes a new day has dawned, and anticipates an even newer one coming that obligates schools to keep up. "When NASA moves into another planet," he says, "[we'll see] all the kinds of things that we need to prepare our kids for that we've only read in comic books.

"My 4-year-old grandson can put a disc in the DVD player, turn the whole thing on, and make it work and he doesn't want me to touch it. And he's sitting at the computer-- his dad's computer-- when I walk in! That's what kids are growing up with. So if we're not into this, we're not going to reach them."

But lest educators fear being minimized by so much gadgetry, Richmond believes that new technology doesn't shrink the role of a good teacher but enlarges it. He recalls what a futurist from HP told a group of his principals and teachers during a visit to Charles County years ago: If you're replaced by technology, you probably should be.

"What he was saying to us was," Richmond says, "you just can't create this stuff and go to sleep. It's only a tool. In itself, it doesn't mean a whole lot if you can't use it to get kids excited about subjects. There are so many things you can do to show kids things that they may not be able to see themselves. If you take the technology and use it, you can open all kinds of worlds to them. If you're thinking 21st-century education for children, how can you not think that way?"

Jeff Weinstock is executive editor of T.H.E. Journal.

This article originally appeared in the 03/01/2009 issue of THE Journal.

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