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High Tech, High Payoff

This low income Missouri district has proven that technology can boost teachers' morale and retentio

Ken Hanrahan could hardly believe his ears. While attending a dinner hosted by International Business Machines last October, several IBM managers were enthusiastically sharing stories with him about the technology program at Jennings (Mo.) School District.

"They kept saying we were one of the few school districts that had support from the top down and that the computer tools were being used for educational purposes and not just for fun and games," says Hanrahan, president of Jenningis school board. "They sat in a fourth-grade class and were so impressed by the way one student was using the technology that if they could, they would have hired him."

In its efforts to jump-start learning opportunities for students, the school district has created 52 technology classrooms since the late 1990s, covering about one-third of the districtis classrooms. Each tech class is equipped with one computer with Internet connectivity for every two students, a Smartboard and a teacheris station, which includes a laptop, digital camera, scanner and color printer. This equipment costs about $40,000 per class.

Its teachers--who now refer to themselves as facilitators--have received 40 hours of training in how to use technology to achieve learning objectives before they enter these classrooms. (Training is ongoing; most teachers receive between 30 to 50 hours a year and one teacher in the district has amassed 300 hours of training in two years.) They've created an educational environment where students are in charge of their own learning, develop critical thinking skills and routinely perform above grade level.

Room to Grow

District Superintendent Terry Stewart started the ball rolling. Before coming to the 3,200-student district 10 years ago, he served as the assistant commissioner for elementary and secondary education at the Missouri state department. It was then that he helped develop a pilot technology program for public schools.

Stewart wanted to launch a similar program at Jennings but lacked funding. The school district, which is located in an impoverished area, is composed of five elementary schools, one junior high and one high school. Most of its students come from single-parent homes. Nearly 90 percent participate in the federal governmentis free or reduced lunch program. Family income falls under the federal poverty line and roughly 40 percent of the student population changes each year.

"All that means is you have interference with student performance," Stewart says. iIt doesnit mean students canit learn. As superintendent, you have to do those things you can to eliminate the interference. I felt if we had a really good high-tech program, that would help us.

He discovered Southwestern Bell was awarding grants to six school districtsovia the Missouri state department--to create technology classrooms. After receiving $200,000, he launched a two-year pilot program in the summer of 1997 with two elementary school teachers. His goal was to determine if technology could positively impact student performance.

Jennings Superintendent Terry Stewart refuses to use the low-income of most district parents as an excuse. "All that means is you have interference with student performance. You have to do those things you can to eliminate the interference."

The most difficult part, he says, was finding teachers who were strong classroom managers and willing to try new things, work hard, and work extra, even on weekends. These teachers would have to break new ground without anyone really leading the way.

Evolving Classroom

One of the teachers selected for the pilot program was fifth-grade teacher Cindy Kicielinski. At the time, she was a communications, arts and science teacher at Fairview Elementary School. "I didn't have a technology background so it was initially overwhelming to think I had to change everything I know and do," says Kicielinski, now a district instructional technology specialist who was pulled out of the classroom after the pilot to help other teachers make the transition.

During the next two years, Kicielinski, another colleague at her school and other teachers from five other school districts were trained by the Missouri Research and Education Network on Saturdays, after school and during week-long summer workshops. Although their salary didn't increase, they received a stipend of $20 an hour during training.

So her students wouldnit lose their technology edge, Kicielinski followed them into the next grade. Little by little, she learned how to operate new technology, such as a Smartboard and scanner, and create meaningful lesson plans that integrated technology.

Take the subject of endangered species. The traditional way of teaching often requires students to read a specific chapter on the topic, complete several worksheets, and then take a test.

However, her students took a completely different tact. They explored which animals were endangered on various Web sites, wrote a research paper and a PowerPoint presentation about one animal, explained why it was endangered and what could be done to prevent its extinction.

The learning curve shot straight up for both Kicielinski and her students. "If anyone would have told me that my students would have been working at this level and understanding at this level, I would have never believed it," she says. "I had to step back and see what my students could do [in this program] versus what I thought they could do [before this program]."

After the pilot ended in 1999, her then sixth-grade students took the Terranova norm test and blew the top off the charts. They were working at the same level as seniors in high school, six grade levels ahead.

The program was a big hit. Now it was time to expand it without additional funding or grants. To do so, Stewart used a trick straight from the classroom. If students learn better by doing an activity, then so would his principals. He requested that each principal observe one technology classroom. They were so impressed, each of them found a way to pay for the program out of their existing budget.

Eighteen more teachers, who taught anywhere from third-graders to high school seniors, were soon selected by Stewart and Kicielinski to become technology classroom teachers.

They completed a crash course taught by Kicielinskioone-half day for one month in the summeroabout how technology can be used as a curriculum tool. At the beginning of the school year, those teachers then headed into classrooms that were equipped with everything from Smartboards to scanners.

"Staff development is why we're successful. We're constantly there to help teachers and mentor them." -Cindy Kicielinski, instructional technology specialist, Jennings School District

Since then, the number of classroom technology teachers has climbed to 52. But once they complete training, theyire not abandoned. Kicielinski spends two days in the classroom with participating teachers, meets with them for an hour each month and conducts a week-long workshop in the summer. They share ideas, lesson plans and learn new ways to use technology.

"Staff development is why we're successful," says Kicielinski, adding that each school in the district has since hired a part-time instructional technology employee to address teachers' questions. "We're constantly there to help teachers and mentor them."

The program also offers an indirect benefit: it can boost employee morale, leading to higher retention rates.

After teaching third and fourth grade for 18 years at Fairview Elementary School, Margaret Wagner was burned out and was considering switching careers. But after being selected for the program four years ago, she says it re-energized her and her students.

A perfect example is an online unit called Westward-Ho, which was created by another teacher. Wagner joined forces with an elementary school teacher in Alabama who was teaching the same unit. Students in both classes form pioneer families, dress in period costumes, introduce themselves via videoconference, take turns solving problems, such as developing a plan to find lost children who separated from their wagon train, then share their plan with each other via videoconference.

"A technology classroom offers a completely different atmosphere than a regular classroom," Wagner says, adding that her students never want to miss school. "It stretches me and my students in all directions."

Carol Patton is a freelance writer based in Las Vegas.

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