Computers Instill Real-World Confidence in Tucson Students

A 2-year-old boy types "Watergate" on his desktop personal computer and an image of Richard Nixon appears along with information about the Washington office break-in. Several desks over, two young girls compare notes over a map of Africa displayed on their monitors. Amid this "organized chaos," a teacher keeps an eye on her classroom, offering guidance when it's needed. If this seems like a fictional classroom, look again. This scenario takes place every day in four classes at Maxwell Middle School in Tucson, Arizona, where nearly three out of four students qualify for participation in the district's Free Lunch program, absentee rates are relatively high and a significant percentage of students are considered "high risk" for dropping out of school. But for the dozen seventh- and eighth-grade classes participating in the Computer Classroom program, absentee rates have dropped and discipline problems are minimal. The program was designed to study the benefits of making PCs the primary mechanism for learning in the classroom. But it is doing much more by giving these children a look at the world outside. From Laboratory to Classroom Before the Computer Classroom project began in 1990, PCs were available to Tucson students only in one-hour laboratory settings. The idea to incorporate computers into the mainstream classroom grew out of a desire to prepare students for an increasingly technology-dependent society. "We call it the Fourth R. That's Reading, Writing, Arithmetic and 'Ready for the World of Work,'" explains Don Collier, principal of Maxwell Middle School. In 1989, district voters passed a bond package that included $50 million for educational technology. According to Jesse Rodriguez, the district's director of information technologies, the first step was to equip the administration offices with modern hardware. To date, the district has installed approximately 60 LANs throughout its schools, central administration and administrative service centers. Nearly 3,500 PCs are linked by Ethernet backbones running on ProSignia server models from Compaq Computer Corp., Houston, Texas. For network management, the IT group relies on Compaq Insight Manager software. Today, each computer has access to a network server loaded with a wide variety of software packages, from AutoCAD to Microsoft Encarta and more. Nine-week courses are designed to motivate students to exploit all the software tools available to them to complete projects in math, science, language arts and social studies. Students are graded on the content of their work as well as their software skills. Rodriguez reports that teachers are finding new and exciting ways to apply the computers in the curriculum as the program matures. Real-World Results Are these children learning? According to results of a standardized equivalency test, the majority of students at Maxwell Middle School achieved statistically significant gains after participating in the program. While all the students are using computers in the classroom, some are even taking computers home. Each year, 30 specially selected seventh graders are assigned Compaq notebook PCs to take with them when the school day ends. An additional 30 notebooks are available for evening and weekend checkout. This encourages more and better communication between parents, teachers and students. Teachers promise quick answers to parents' questions and provide them electronically; parents guarantee they'll work to maintain their children's progress; and children pledge to be responsible for the equipment. Students who would not develop marketable skills through pure classroom work are now learning more than just fractions and current events. Principal Collier says many youngsters have learned critical job skills such as word processing. Following a Business Model "It's education done under the business model," explains Rodriguez. "The whole purpose of education is to produce a student who will be able to function in society." If the district needed further proof of the program's success, they need look no further than the computer stores in Tucson. Many parents have purchased computers for the home so their children can continue to benefit from computer-aided education.

This article originally appeared in the 06/01/1995 issue of THE Journal.