In a few short years, the Frontier School District in Red Rocks, Okla., has more than doubled the percentage of its students pursuing a college education. Not coincidentally, at the same time the rural district has nurtured a commitment to learning and achievement among all of its students.
Frontier's student population is traditionally underserved; more than 50 percent of its students are Native American and 65 percent of students qualify for free or reduced lunch. A few years ago, only a fraction of the student population opted to pursue higher education. High school principal Randy Robinson says, "In 1989-90, 33 percent of our students went to college or vocational/technical schools. The rest weren't focused on higher education. There's been a conversion in the last five years. Now anywhere from 68 percent to 90 percent of students are going to college or vocational/technical schools."
It's no surprise that technology facilitated the changes in the district, but Superintendent Steve Shiever credits his staff for making things happen. "The thing that makes our program successful is a conscientious principal and a dedicated staff."
The district began incorporating technology into its curriculum in 1989 when it installed five computers in each K-8 classroom. Since that time it has received $3.3 million dollars in state and federal technology grants. The district has purchased iBook laptops for all students in grades 7-12, the elementary school is completely networked, and the middle and high school is wireless. The high school also received grants to install two distance-learning classrooms where students can enroll in college courses or take college prep classes that aren't offered by the Frontier district. But, all of the grant money would have been wasted, asserts Shiever, if it weren't for an intensive, ongoing staff development program.
Students in the Frontier District attend school 4-and-ahalf days a week; every Friday afternoon is set aside for staff development.
"For technology to be successful, you must have training. It allows us to keep instruction current, and that really pays off for the students," he says. Shiever appeals to the Oklahoma State Board of Education every year to receive permission for the scheduling change, and on Friday afternoons Frontier teachers go to school.
The district begins the school year by helping first-year teachers get up to speed on the basics such as gradebooks and attendance. For the next few weeks, teachers are surveyed about their technology needs. Typically, these classes consist of refresher courses on the previous year's software or demonstrations of advanced software applications. Next, the district spends about four months working on new software and new techniques. Each time new software is introduced, the district provides teachers examples of how it can be used in the curriculum. Finally, during the last several months of the school year, the staff development team works with individual teachers and small groups to help them realize the maximum benefit of the products.
The combination of software, laptops and technologysavvy teaching staff has made a tremendous difference in the district. The technology program has fostered a 'can do' attitude among all students in the district.
"The top half of the students has really pushed themselves more since we've incorporated the laptops into the curriculum. They realize they have an opportunity and they're running with it. For the bottom half, it's a much more hands-on approach to education," Robinson explains. The technology essentially enables students to learn at their own pace, whether it is enrolling in college at 15, or slowly reviewing basic math through an individualized math software program.
It is the ITV classrooms, however, which have truly unlocked the door to higher education for students.
The district used grant money to set up its first distancelearning classroom in 1995. The classroom and studio cost about $68,000, and the bridge to connect the classroom with seven other high schools and colleges came to $100,000. Four years ago, the district purchased a portable ITV unit and remodeled and expanded the first classroom for a mere $16,000. With the ITV classrooms, high school students can enroll in college courses. "The ITV classrooms have increased the number of students doing concurrent enrollment. There are usually anywhere from 17 to 29 kids in the senior class. Every year three to seven students concurrently enroll in college courses," Robinson explains.
Jenna Root, a high school senior, will complete 22 college credit hours by graduation. Root appreciates the convenience of attending college at her high school campus. While having a significant amount of college coursework under her belt before she attends college has given Root a leg up, she says, "All of my experience with technology has really helped. I've learned how to take notes and organize things. It's also a fast way to do research."
Like all of her classmates, Root is taking a Senior Projects course that combines technology and research. Root's comfort level with technology becomes apparent as she describes the variety of programs she mastered to create a video documentary about her heritage. Each semester seniors learn three to five new computer programs as they complete an interdisciplinary research project. Root believes learning programs like Adobe PhotoShop, Smart Sound and VR Works helps prepare her for the sophisticated programs she will have to learn as she pursues a degree in engineering at Oklahoma State University.
A number of Roots' college-bound peers have found their technology finesse carries an added benefit-cold, hard cash. Robinson claims, "The program has economic advantages." Frontier graduates are landing jobs paying $8 to $10 an hour in the media section at the university. These types of high-paying part-time jobs can ease the financial burden of attending college.
Shiever believes the concurrent enrollment program benefits all students. Students who don't take college courses still become aware of what college is about as they observe others participating in college classes. The ITV classrooms also provide another important benefit for college-bound students. It is difficult for smaller schools to offer a full-breadth of courses to their students. With ITV the district can leverage teachers and classes from other schools. For five years, Frontier has offered a live, real-time math class to students in other schools connected to OneNet, Oklahoma's telecommunications and information network for schools.
The Frontier administration and teaching staff are wholly committed to putting technology to work for their students, and students, in turn, have paralleled that commitment to education. It is especially apparent on the weekend in the Frontier high school parking lot. Every weekend the lot is littered with students. But they aren't vandalizing school property, revving noisy car engines or causing any trouble at all. They are, in fact, doing their homework. Because students can get a signal in the school parking lot, it is the preferred homework spot for those without Internet access at home. While the district's use of technology has garnered several state and national awards, this display of students' dedication may be best measure of success.
Lisa Fratt, firstname.lastname@example.org, is a freelance writer based in Ashland, Wis.