Stafford County Schools Use Partnerships to Blaze Hi-Tech Trail

SHIRLEY C. HEIM, Assistant Superintendent for Finance Stafford County Public Schools Stafford, Va. Last fall, Stafford Senior High School students used computer-aided design (CAD) software to prepare customized architectural blueprints for a private home. By the end of the school year this spring, they will have performed the masonry, construction and wiring necessary to complete the house, which will be sold for a net profit. "It was something I designed that was actually going to get built, and that's a big rush," said Jamie Wolf, the senior who spearheaded the blueprint design project. He said computer-aided design experience helped spark his interest in architecture, which he plans to study in college next fall. The house construction program -- Project Bringing Occupational Opportunities To Schools (BOOTS) -- illustrates how technology and business partnerships are improving the quality of education within Stafford County Public Schools, an 18-school, 15,000-student suburban Virginia district. Project BOOTS Project BOOTS was established in 1990 through a partnership between the Stafford County Vocational Education Foundation, Inc., and the nearby Fredericksburg Area Builders Association. Since receiving an initial donation of $10,000 from the Stafford County School Board and a $60,000 construction loan from a local lending institution to begin the first year's project, the program has been sustained through donations of materials and services and the sale of the homes. Each fall, student teams work together to develop a site plan, elevation drawings, floor plan, electrical plans, foundation plans, and wall section drawings that are needed to obtain a building permit from the county's code and compliance office. All of the plans are designed using AutoCAD Release 12, a three-dimensional CAD software package commonly used in the construction trade. Although Stafford Senior High is the only district school with Project BOOTS, each of the district's other two high schools has at least ten CAD drafting stations outfitted with AutoCAD 12. Once the various student teams have completed their plans, the Vocational Education Foundation Board's building committee selects the most appropriate set of plans for the year's building site. After approval by the board's full membership, the plans are submitted to the county for a building permit, and construction begins. Approximately 60 members of the Fredericksburg Area Builders Association -- including construction, masonry, carpet, paint, banking and other companies -- have donated their time, materials and money to the program. Builders Association member firms understand the relationship and benefits that such programs bring to their own business: increased recognition and a more talented pool of potential employees. Several students involved in Project BOOTS have been hired by these companies. "It's simultaneously giving students the opportunity to get some real-life work experience and upgrading the quality of vocational education we have to offer," noted Mark Strickler, an assistant principal at Stafford. "It's also peaking their [students'] interest, and that's an invaluable benefit." Now in its fourth year, Project BOOTS is prosperous and highly regarded. Sales from the first three houses have helped the project accumulate net assets of over $55,000. For the 1993-94 school year, the Vocational Education Foundation in partnership with the Fredericksburg Builders Association was recognized as a state winner by the Governor's Business Education Partnership Awards Program in Richmond, Va. Technology Takes Center Stage Project BOOTS is just one example of the larger technological revolution occurring at Stafford County Public Schools, which has used a $3 million county bond issue to thrust itself into the Information Superhighway's passing lane. Rather than creating a single "school of the future," the district is giving all Stafford County schools -- most of which were built in the 1970s and 80s -- a techno-facelift. And teamwork is getting the job done. Since early 1994, the Technology Implementation Committee -- a 15-member partnership of construction and planning, building maintenance, administrative, finance and information systems specialists -- has used its cross-functional knowledge to make crucial procurement and installation decisions. Members of the committee have made determinations on such issues as the: number of computer "drops," or outlets; number and type of computer labs; type of updated electrical service; number and configuration of computers; network design and components; monitors and hardware; and menuing software. And they haven't had to make just one decision on each of these issues; school procurement law requires these decisions to be made individually for each school -- a daunting task by anyone's standards. The district has also benefited from the quality products and technical expertise provided by its computer vendor, ManTech Systems Corp. ManTech has been supplying mission-critical products and services to help manage complex challenges for over 25 years so we were confident they could help bring Stafford County Public Schools into the 21st century. ManTech supplied Accel personal computers (DOS) and InSync monitors, built-to-order at a fair price. And their technical representatives remained available to guide us through installation and initial use. Old Fundamentals Learned in New Ways An emphasis on integrating technology into the curriculum d'es not mean that the old fundamentals -- reading, writing and calculating -- are being abandoned. Rather, these basic skills are now being mastered by students within a much more modern, real-world environment. Learning word-processing skills now begins in kindergarten and is continued through the end of high school. Instead of drafting papers once and turning them in, students are being encouraged to hone their writing skills by drafting, editing and drafting again. Not only will graduating seniors be proficient with standard programs like WordPerfect, but they also will have experience in publishing documents that combine text, graphics and scanned images. Stafford County high schoolers are using sophisticated software to do science experiments formerly impossible to perform without lab equipment. One software program, called Interactive Physics, allows students to simulate Newtonian Mechanics. A student manipulates the computer mouse to draw springs, ropes or mass shapes; the program then determines how objects should move and activates them. Students can measure physical quantities such as velocity, friction and angular momentum, and display the results as numbers, graphs or animated vector displays. Students are also using the Internet and CD-ROMs for research. Super Tom and Newsbank, containing the full text of articles from leading magazines, have become popular CD-ROMs. Another frequent reference is Microsoft Bookshelf, which combines the Columbia Encyclopedia, American Heritage Dictionary, Roget's II Electronic Thesaurus, World Almanac, Bartlett's Familiar Quotations and the Hammond Atlas. While they used to complain about not being able to find enough information on a topic, students are now being forced to develop stronger analytical skills to help them determine which information among the multitude is most important. Networks: Evolution and Effects Presently, all three district high schools are fully networked, with computers in every classroom, sophisticated library media centers and computer labs. Students at these schools can access CD-ROM towers from any terminal in the building and store text and graphic files on the network server. Teachers and administrators have access to a centralized electronic gradebook and can send electronic mail anywhere in the school. Later this year, the district will put in place a wide-area network (WAN) to connect the already locally networked schools. The district's 15 other schools are on their way as well; all have media centers and labs, and will be fully networked by 1997. Computer technology is upending traditional student-teacher relationships at Stafford County Schools. For example, last summer Linda Sutherland, a library media specialist and technology trainer at North Stafford High School, worked with student volunteers to help set up the school's network. Now those students are "tech tutors," helping their teachers learn how to utilize CD-ROMs and send e-mail. "It's a refreshing role reversal," said Sutherland. "Many of the teachers who are initially resistant to the technology change their tune when they observe the students' confidence and enthusiasm firsthand. They want to be able to connect with the students on that level." The Most Important Partners The district is also enhancing its efforts to reach parents, its most important partners. It's not easy; in many families both parents work full-time in the metropolitan Washington, D.C., area and don't arrive home until well after school closes. Now, thanks to a new 24-hour, online messaging system, called School Voice, instituted at four of the district's schools, parents can phone in at any time to check their children's homework assignments, upcoming school activities, even cafeteria menus. The system also offers voice mail, so parents can report student absences. Three more district schools are planning to implement a voice-mail/information system in the near future. School Voice is roundly applauded by parents. For example, Drew Middle School currently averages 300 parent calls per day. The school will soon implement the system's automatic dial-out capability, which can be set to contact parents with an automated message, saving school administrators time and resources. Other offerings for parents should be noted as well. ManTech donated 15 IBM-compatible PCs for use in a computer lab staffed with professional instructors funded by the district's Parent/Teacher/Student Association. Stafford County parents are encouraged to come with their children to the lab for free instruction and open labs weekday evenings and Saturday mornings. "We want parents to become familiar with the hardware and programs their kids are using at school," said Strickler, "and this is a great place to start." The district's technology committee is also being expanded to include parents, with an eye toward further involving them in the decision making process. Initially, the group of about 12 parent volunteers will help the district institute a WAN and brainstorm new ideas for business partnerships. School district officials expect a wealth of good ideas, considering the high level of technological literacy generally displayed by Stafford County parents. Closing Comments Gregg Gustafson, the district's director of technology and information services, chairs the technology committee. With more than 15 years of experience, Gustafson brings the technical skills and mindset that will help the school district forge fruitful new partnerships with the private sector. He explained: "What parents want for their children is an opportunity to succeed, and what industry wants are employees with the skills and preparation necessary to be competitive in the global marketplace. We help bridge that gap." Technology is an equal-opportunity tool that Stafford County teachers are using to reach students at all levels of achievement. Noted Strickler: "This fall we had six National Merit Scholarship finalists at Stafford Senior High. But we also have those kids building a house. The computers are helping foster the involvement and commitment all these kids need to be successful in life." n Shirley Heim has more than 30 years of experience as a public school teacher and administrator. An administrator at Stafford County Public Schools since 1967, she has served as the district's assistant superintendent for finance since 1985. As the district officer in charge of finance and technology, she chaired the steering committee that executed Stafford County Public Schools' recent technology project and was the final arbiter on all procurement decisions. Heim designed and was the first director of the Virginia Governor's School for the Gifted, founded in 1970 at Mary Washington College in Fredericksburg. In September 1994, she was the only school administrator to present a paper at the Best Manufacturing Practices Conference in La Jolla, Calif. Products mentioned in this article: Accel PCs and InSync monitors; ManTech Systems Corp., Springfield, Va., (703) 569-5858 AutoCAD Release 12; Autodesk, Inc., San Rafael, Calif., (800) 964-6432 Interactive Physics; Knowledge Revolution, San Mateo, Calif., (415) 574-7777 Newsbank; Newsbank, Inc., New Canaan, Conn., (800) 243-7694 Microsoft Bookshelf; Microsoft Corp., Redmond, Wash., (800) 426-9400 School Voice; Micro Delta Corp., Deerfield Beach, Fla., (800) 775-5350 Super Tom on InfoTrac; Information Access Co., Foster City, Calif., (800) 227-8431

This article originally appeared in the 03/01/1995 issue of THE Journal.