The funny thing about trying to design the future is that to do a good job of it you often have to look backward. While Scarsdale Public Schools, an affluent suburb of New York City, would be considered a leading proponent of educational technology by any impartial observer, the district revels now in mapping out how its journey started. A 1980 piece of footage of the district's then assistant superintendent extols the virtues of fifth graders using computers to "construct their own learning." Indeed the district has been using computers in its classrooms since 1978, and in 1994 it used the fledgling Internet to connect its fourth graders with graduate students at UCLA.
Current school board President L. Jeffrey Samuelson points back to a small group of parents he was part of 20 years ago that criticized the district's tech efforts and laid the groundwork for the current programs. "It required a significant investment," Samuelson says, the latest of which was a $60 million bond to expand a high school and middle school and get the buildings ready for more technology. "And we are not done. We are lagging in a number of areas."
The district has about 1,600 computers for its seven schools, including district-issued laptops for each teacher. Scarsdale employs a three-person tech support team to fix computer problems in-house. "We have a technology plan that speaks to all levels from K-12," says Technology Coordinator Jerry Crisci. "Integration is part of the district's philosophy, we don't teach technology as a separate subject. It's taken a long time to get there."
The district's progress was recognized by the National School Boards Association, which made Scarsdale one of its three site visits this year. Ann Flynn, NSBA's director of educational technology, says Scarsdale's tech initiative is district wide and especially strong in the area of integrating technology with professional development.
Scarsdale Teachers Institute
A district doesn't become a leader by chance, and a large part of Scarsdale's success comes from its professional development programs. To call what this district does professional development doesn't do it justice. The district has three levels of support for teachers. First, three computer teachers work in the five elementary schools, two in the middle school and another two in the high school, giving teachers plenty of opportunities to get hands-on help as they do classroom projects. Second, the district offers workshops with multiple modalities at various times during the year, on weekends, afterschool, before school and during the summer. But the biggest part of this program is the Scarsdale Teachers Institute. The institute offers graduate-level courses to all teachers. The 48-page manual outlines the more than 100 courses offered per term. Taking a class, or several, is voluntary, but 90 percent of teachers take at least one.
Steve Goodman, a seventh-grade social studies teacher, says the institute helped him "get acclimated" when he joined the district. "It helped me do more in the classrooms with technology."
Susan Taylor, STI's director, says the district has learned that "staff release days don't work. Teachers need recurrent support to achieve to the next level."
Classes offered range from Portfolio Workshop to Archeology in the Classroom to Declassifying 20th Century Music. Technology is one of just eight areas in which classes are offered.
3D in high school
Several years ago, high school teacher Dan Derwin knew he wanted to start teaching a 3D animation course at Scarsdale High. When he visited several colleges in New York City to get ideas about how to start such a program, he remembers being laughed at. "No one else did it," he recalls. To compound his problem, once he created the class, it was inadvertently left out of the school's course catalog. On word of mouth alone, he got 40 students signing up. Next year, left out of the catalog again, 80 students. "Kids love technology, they're not intimidated," he says. And the students backed that up, giving NSBA visitors a mini-tour of how to start creating a 3D character onscreen. The students apologize for the basic nature of their lessons, but all around the room visitors are amazed at the complexity being shown and how easily the students can handle these complicated programs.
Now Derwin teaches two classes at the high school, covering about 60 students, regular and advanced. "We have high motivation here. We just turn them on and let them go."
Scarsdale (N.Y.) Public Schools
No. of schools: 5 elementary schools, one middle school, and one high school
No. of teachers: 435
No. of students: 4,629
Ethnicity: 83.7% white, 2.1% Hispanic, 1.9 % black, 12.3% American Indian/Alaskan/Asian/Pacific Islander
Per-pupil expenditures: $21,431, 9th highest rate of 46 districts in Westchester County, New York
Dropout rate: 0 %
Scarsdale population: 17,283
Superintendent: Michael V. McGill, since 1998
Wayne D'Orio is editor-in-chief.