Small Town, Big Tech

Small Town, Big Tech

Microsoft recognizes rural S.C. elementary school as ‘innovative.’
Great Falls Elementary School Principal Wendell Sumter, left, and Chester County Schools Superintendent Agnes Slayman peer over students’ shoulders, excited about a project.

Schools aren’t often called one of the best in the world, but it happened in the rural district of Chester County (S.C.) School District. In October 2012, computing behemoth Microsoft named Chester County’s Great Falls Elementary School a 2012 “Innovative Pathfinder and Mentor School.” The distinction comes from the Microsoft Partners in Learning Program, a 10-year, nearly $500 million commitment to transform K12 education around the world by connecting teachers and school leaders in a community of professional development.

The program also helps school leaders foster innovative teaching practices and 21st-century learning by providing tools and resources they need to better impact student participation.

A key component to the program is connecting winning schools by having them mentor each other, and by inviting them to conferences to let them share best practices for achievement with each other. In 2012, only 99 schools worldwide (nine of which were in the United States) were named the most innovative schools in the world, out of hundreds that applied.

Microsoft selected Great Falls for the technological strategies it uses to engage students through its innovative, challenging curriculum focused on inquiry-based, hands-on learning. Teachers work collaboratively to create a culture of excellence by using technology to support learning across the curriculum, addressing student needs based on assessment data; but they also work to provide an innovative professional learning culture. As a “Professional Development school” in a partnership with Winthrop University, teachers use a Lucy panoramic camera from Kogeto not only to reflect on teaching practices, but to share what they have learned about effectively integrating technology into the curriculum with teachers locally, and across the country.

Award-winning Innovation

Any school leader may nominate his or her school through an extensive online application, and last spring, Great Falls Principal Wendell B. Sumter and kindergarten teacher Stephanie Barber answered lengthy questions about how the school integrated technology in the classrooms, and used it to propel professional development.

When Sumter became principal three years ago, Great Falls Elementary had a basic computer lab, while some teachers had Promethean whiteboards, and there were two computers in each classroom. Since then, Sumter used money the school receives from its Title I federal funds to increase student access to technology in various ways. First, in 2010, Sumpter developed a “Laptop Lounge” where students in grade 3 through 5 who scored at or below South Carolina’s Palmetto Assessment of State Standards (PASS) test for reading could go for 30 to 40 minutes, every other day, to use MindPlay’s My Reading Coach program on 25 HP laptops. The machines cost between $20,000 and $30,000, and he says he was “very impressed with the results.”

Students who used the My Reading Coach program climbed from 8 percent in 2011 to 38 percent in 2012. The school will now open the program to other grades in the building.

In 2011, Sumter followed the Laptop Lounge’s success with an “iPad Island”—20 iPads on a rolling cart that can be moved throughout the school to improve classroom instruction. Teachers are using them to introduce new content in their classrooms and as assessment tools for remedial teaching.

That same year, Great Falls leaders started using a Lucy panoramic camera to record 365-degree video of teachers in action in classrooms. Teachers may watch videos of themselves and reflect on whether they’re providing effective classroom instruction, Sumter says. It is also used so when education students from nearby Winthrop University who are training to become teachers are doing internships at the school, the school’s teachers can review that video and help the interns on their approaches to classroom instruction.

“Technology doesn’t take the place of authentic teaching,” says Sumter, “[but] the most important thing to me is teachers being able to use technology to enhance student achievement. They are very open—they’re lifelong learners.”

When Great Falls was selected as a Pathfinder School by Microsoft, the school sent Sumter and Barber to Prague in November for the Microsoft “Partners In Learning Global Forum” where administrators convened to share their schools’ tech success stories.

Superintendent Agnes Slayman, who started at Chester in January 2012, recalls Sumter’s excitement to apply for this innovative school achievement. “ ‘I can’t tell you how thrilled I am,’ ” she recalls. “The school board has been empowering and the informational technology department has embraced the vision of technology and its importance to our teaching. I really am happy we have a forward-thinking group.”

Byron V. Garrett, Microsoft’s U.S. Innovative Schools program director, says the school was among those chosen because it had a clear vision. “This is a worldwide program. To participate in the Pathfinder program, [a school] has to chronicle the use of technology, but also how it drives student outcomes,” says Garrett. “The leadership was certainly there at the district level, and there was a clear direction of how technology should be used on the school campus.”

And, with only 436 students—86 percent of whom receive reduced-price lunch—Garrett says the school’s designation is rare for a small, rural school.

Foundation for Tech Success

Aside from these major technology developments, the school’s recognition rests largely on the overall tech landscape that has been in place in Chester, and that continues to improve. The district receives yearly eRate funds to help schools with high rates of reduced-price lunches. Because these funds may only be used to improve the district’s infrastructure, it frees the district to spend tech dollars in other ways.

In 2011-2012, Chester County schools was allocated $211,300, which purchased and updated technology like iPads, eReaders, and Leapsters, which are handheld, electronic learning gaming devices particularly for 4- to 9-year-olds that are like educational video games. It also helped to buy more Promethean boards, which the district has used for the last 10 years. Slayman says the teachers praise the whiteboards for how they address students’ different learning styles. Auditory, visual, tactile, and kinesthetic modalities can be addressed in lessons when technology is incorporated into the learning environment. By the end of 2012, the district finished placing 360 whiteboards in all district classrooms. The overall cost was $1.3 million.

Chester’s technology isn’t only about the hardware: it’s relevant in instruction, as well. The district offers two tech-related STEM programs at its Chester County Career Center that have classes that teach students to build the technology of tomorrow.

Any Chester high school student may apply to be in engineering courses through the Project Lead The Way Engineering and Mechatronics programs (mechatronics includes the design of everything from smartphones, cars, and robots to the International Space Station). They are hands-on, project-based engineering courses students may take at the career center, then return to their high school for core instruction like their math, science, and English.

Future Tech for Chester

Slayman says she believes that technology integration will occur districtwide. “As we share best practices across the district, as funding provides technology for all teachers in all schools, the level of technology integrated in Great Falls Elementary will be replicated in all of our schools,” she says.

Her next hope is for a 1:1 laptop or mobile device program at the high school level, followed by a full 1:1 program throughout the district where all teachers and students would have access to technology.

Jen Chase is a contributing writer to District Administration.

CHESTER COUNTY SCHOOL DISTRICT

  • Schools: 13
  • Students: 5,526
  • Staff and faculty: 705 (330 are teachers)
  • Per-child expenditure: $8,557
  • Dropout rate: 4 percent
  • Students receiving free or reduced-price lunch: 73 percent
  • URL: www.chester.k12.sc.us

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