At a suburban elementary school in Washington, just outside Seattle, students sometimes learn best when they match the natural beauty of the great outdoors with man-made plastic computers chips. Students at Benjamin Rush Elementary School in the Lake Washington School District walk through nearby wetlands, take digital pictures of plant species, transport them into their color-screened iPaq handheld computers, and sync the handhelds to a computer to research plants on the Internet. Thus, they create a walking guide to plants on the handheld.
"What most districts across the country struggle with is how to use technology in order to help students become a better student, writer or thinker," says Chip Kimball, Lake Washington's assistant superintendent for information services. "The important thing is that they use technology as an integral part of the normal curriculum and not as a separate piece. We're getting there."
Indeed, this district is further than most, according to the National School Boards Association. NSBA chose Lake Washington for an in-depth look this past February at how districts use technology to achieve educational excellence. Lake Washington's technology program is funded through voter-approved levies. The first one passed in 1989 and the last one was approved this year. It will last through 2006.
Kimball is a leader for technology standards nationwide and the district has been "very active in technology" for years, says Ann Flynn, NSBA's director of education technology.
In fact, it's the second time Lake Washington School District has been chosen for such a tour.
"In the early 1990s, Lake Washington was considered a leader ...and the three primary areas Lake Washington was known for was curriculum development, professional development and technology," Kimball says.
building on prior success In the early 1990s, Superintendent of Schools Karen Bates and two others created a Student Profile/Curriculum Framework. During the course of 30 community meetings, they first asked basic questions, such as: What is a school? What should schooling be about? And what should students know?
From there, they looked at the standards movement that was quickly spreading across the nation and created 54 "cells" on a student profile, which is the student destination. It includes what the district wants students to know by graduation, how they would teach subjects, and how the "big picture" translates into everyday instruction, Bates says.
The curriculum framework is the road map to achieve the destination. And unlike most other districts, the curriculum is conceptually based. For example, students learn an overlying theme of "interdependence" in science and social studies for a month or two, instead of simply learning about dinosaurs in fourth grade and the Great Plains in fifth grade.
"The great distinction over anything else in the country is that the content is a byproduct of the theme, as opposed to the content driving the theme," Kimball adds. "It ensures our teachers are staying consistent."
And technology allows the framework and profile to "come alive," Kimball says. "We now believe the framework is accomplished through the use of technology. We think students will be able to learn more comprehensively and find faster results using technology."
All four high schools in the district have high-tech learning centers that are aligned with a local community college high-tech program. The courses, in part, focus on networking, graphic arts and Web publication. It works cooperatively with nine school districts. If students want to take classes not offered at Lake Washington, they can take the classes at another participating district.
Extensive professional development is another factor that creates success, in part because teachers are required to demonstrate competency in technology skills, Kimball says.
The district also has a 4-to-1 student-to-computer ratio and does not use computers that are more than five years old. Every classroom in every school has 12 Internet ports. Desktops are the main computers for students, but the district is phasing in laptops for students mainly for portable labs to role them into and out of classrooms.
Students start banging on computers in kindergarten but don't start learning keyboarding until third grade. In high school, students use technology for writing, word processing, research and technology-specific curriculum, Kimball says.
For example, one high school student used a computer assisted design modeling program to design a sailboat for his senior project exhibition, something every senior has to do. He used technical, math and conceptual skills. "It was nothing short of dramatic," Kimball says. "It's the kind of work that professional engineers do. ...He's a bright kid. But more importantly, he's in an environment where those conceptual skills are fostered and encouraged. It all comes together in this project that exhibits this type of learning that's he's been engaged in for four years."
real-world problem solving Then there is the M&M-Microsoft math lesson in a third-grade class. A teacher, for example, throws M&M's on a table. Students sort them by color and then build ratios based on the percentage of each color. Then they use Microsoft Excel spreadsheets to draw the activity on charts. "The technology enhances the activity in order to better teach and communicate the mathematical concepts," Kimball says.
While Kimball says the district's students perform around the 75th percentile compared to the national average on the Iowa Basic Skills Test, the students perform in the upper 15th percentile on the Washington Assessment for Student Learning statewide test. And Kimball believes WASL proves a lot more about a student's understanding than the national Iowa test. "That [WASL] test is more about performance and solving real problems instead of simply a regurgitation of the facts," Kimball says.
At the Environmental and Adventure School, one of seven "choice schools" in the district, 135 sixth through ninth graders learn core curriculum through themes based on healthy environments and adventure. Every Friday, students take part in Friday Stewardship Projects and chose three out of 10 project ideas to develop during the year, according to head teacher Eileen McMackin. For such projects, for example, students visit local parks where they use Vernier's LabPro, a digital data collection device, says teacher Brian Healy. It measures objects such as water quality and water salinity. The LabPro can later download this information to a computer. The LabPro also piggybacks on a Texas Instruments Graphing Calculator for real-time data collection to read the temperature, salinity, volume, acidity and water chemistry in the field.
McMackin adds that such information is used for the GLOBE program, or Geographic Learning and Observation to Benefit the Environment. It's an international program where students worldwide collect data electronically, which are used by scientists to make decisions about the environment's needs in a particular area.
And parents of students at the middle school can hook up to Parent Organizer, a Web-based product that keeps parents informed about school events and activities pertinent to their child.
At Benjamin Rush Elementary, a pilot project underway brings Microsoft's Encarta Class Server and Edmin.com's Virtual Education to teachers so they can create a virtual locker or cumulative file folder for every student, including a student's strengths and weaknesses, says principal Justin Blasko.
Video-editing is used for student productions and school-wide broadcasting called "The Benjamin Rush Broadcast." Every Thursday morning a core group of 16 students organize and air a TV broadcast using computers, videocameras, VHS tapes and Dazzle software. It informs students of school events and activities.
First graders create PowerPoint slide shows with Microsoft Office and third-graders put student projects on the Web.
"I find that the power of technology really motivates kids," Blasko says. "Whether or not it's increasing standardized test scores ...what I see is that kids want to do those projects. They are fired up to do those projects. That's the most I could ask for."
Angela Pascopella, email@example.com, is associate features editor.