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Getting Wired

Learn how this Cincinnati-based district dramatically altered the way it teaches students through a host of cutting-edge technologies.

When Mariemont started planning its technology implementation five years ago, the superintendent and other administrators realized that a computer lab and a network were far from enough. The Cincinnati-based K-12 district had grander visions than that, including video streaming, wireless capability, tech-savvy teachers, SmartBoards, and technology-based research projects in every grade. And, with numerous planning meetings, some grant money, and the commitment of every educator, they now have it all.

"When I was a social studies teacher, I used to talk about periods like the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution," says Gerald Harris, Mariemont's superintendent. "And it made me realize that we're living in times that are revolutionary. The technological revolution has great promise for education, but it's up to us to determine how to harness it, and where it's going."

Starting in 1998, he and others in the district began to map out a vision of how technology could fundamentally change learning and teaching. "Bettering administrative processes would be nice, and establishing community would be nice, but we knew that every dollar of investment had to relate to improving how the students learn," he says.

Mariemont's Transformation

The first maneuver in Mariemont's technology revolution was getting a network in place that could not only handle short-term needs, but also long-term changes and growth. The district chose Cisco, because the company demonstrated it could build an end-to-end network that was scalable, anticipating later moves to wireless capability and IP telephony.

Once the network was in place, wireless soon followed, as well as IP video, SmartBoards and laptop-laden carts that could travel to any classroom that needed them. There are also desktops in every classroom, and most teachers use PowerPoint and Internet resources regularly. A grant in 2003 provided $150,000 for professional development, giving teachers the ability to go to national technology conferences and get training, which they then passed on to other teachers in the district.

As the hardware and software was being put in place, the district developed a series of grade-specific annual research projects that would guide students through using increasingly complex technology.

"The projects give a scope and sequence to information literacy as kids progress from kindergarten to high school graduation," says Keith Koehne, principal of Mariemont Junior High School. "There's a great deal of time and energy put toward making sure that what was taught in third grade is built on in fourth. It's a view of technology as an increasing amount of literacy, rather than just use or exposure."

Within the past few years, more advancements came as each teacher developed a personal Web page, a networked security camera system was installed, and a virtual private network was implemented to connect teachers, parents and students. When a digital video class was first offered three years ago, 108 students signed up for it. Now, the district has four levels of digital video instruction, and student work frequently ends up on the local cable access channel.

Harris estimates the district spends about $400,000 per year on all technology, but that a recent move to IP telephony has boosted the schools' return on investment so significantly that it nearly covers the bill for the initial technology installation, and should ease costs long into the future.

The intense integration of technology into all aspects of Mariemont has boosted the involvement of everyone concerned. Teachers and parents can swap e-mails quickly, or students can check their test scores from home to see if they need to do extra credit work. When she begins a Latin lesson with PowerPoint that includes discussion points and animation, Good can see her students becoming more engaged. "It makes learning appealing to the students," she says.

Gauging Progress

Evaluating the success of a technology implementation can be tricky, and Mariemont is no exception. How can a district really know whether technology is enriching the educational experience beyond what a non-wired environment might provide? For Mariemont, the evidence comes from a number of sources.

Primarily, the district depends on frequent reports from teachers, who are seeing first-hand how technology tools are assisting students. Lisa Good, who teaches eighth-grade Latin at Mariemont Junior High, uses laptops with her students for online activities, research and project creation. She sparks discussion through PowerPoint presentations that feature images and animation. She uses her personal Web page as a reference guide, with links to assignments, notes and past projects, as well as links to Internet sites related to the language. The district's online gradebook program facilitates speedy grade entry, and both students and parents can log onto it to check a child's progress.

Now in her ninth year at the district, Good has seen a change in how students approach Latin since technology has become such a big part of the district. "The students have become better researchers, knowing how to search Web pages and how to critique the information provided on those sites," she says. "Students are beginning to think more critically through different projects and assignments that teachers are able to make more accessible to students through the use of technology."

Veronica Petru, a fourth-grade teacher who has been with the district since 1991, has seen greater reasoning ability among her students as well. "You can see it in the way they pose questions," she says. "They have access to so much information now, they're operating at a higher level." And it doesn't hurt to have tech-savvy students for the moments when some support is needed, she says with a laugh. "I have 9-year-olds who are experts on PowerPoint," she notes. "It's amazing how quickly they just absorb the nuances of technology."

Beyond frequently gathering teacher feedback, Harris adds that a technology consultancy is hired to come in occasionally and give an objective report about how effectively the systems and software are being used. Another strong measure is a poll of recent high school graduates, who answer questions once they're attending college about how well prepared they feel. The poll results have consistently justified technology spending, Harris says, since the graduates have all confirmed that they feel at ease with what's available on their new campus, and ahead of their peers in terms of research skills.

As a final measurement component, Harris points to standardized test scores, which have increased since the network and subsequent technology additions were added.

" We're waiting for the next cutting-edge technology. I think we're well poised for whatever it may be."

Gerald Harris, Mariemont City School District

Koehne notes that simple observation shows that every dime put toward technology has been money well spent. "The most important measure is whether the kids are benefiting, and we can see that they are," he says.

Road Ahead

Mariemont's focus on technology has brought not only student achievement, but also the Blue Ribbon Award four times. Like everyone who tries to stay on top of tech, Mariemont has its eye on what's ahead. Its progress up to this point, Harris says, is just the beginning.

"We're looking forward to increased communication between schools and students' homes," says Harris. "We're looking at using the system to broadcast messages, like soccer practice delays, for example, but also instructionally."

In terms of larger plans, Harris says that because the network is scalable, the district will be able to quickly take advantage of whatever new technology is just around the corner. "We're waiting for the next cutting-edge technology," he says. "I think we're well poised for whatever it may be."