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Sustaining Excellence

This all-high school district shows how precise tech planning can keep schools ahead of the curve

Sustaining Excellence

In a technology-equipped, Internet-connected science lab at Elk Grove High School in Illinois, the amoeba squirming beneath the lens of a student microscope is projected onto a screen for the entire class to observe.

Meanwhile, in the distance learning room, a human physiology class teleconferences with a heart surgeon from an area hospital, while other students chat with peers from far-away places like Australia, Japan and Bulgaria.

Virtual field trips and tech labs equipped with flight simulators and desktop publishing modules are pretty much par for the course at Elk Grove. "Sometimes you get a little spoiled and forget what you have," says Principal Raymond Broderick.

Located in a middle-income suburb about 25 miles northwest of Chicago, Elk Grove is one of six comprehensive high schools that make up Township High School District 214. In the early 1990s, while its counterparts were busy with paper and pen, this 12,000-student district was light years ahead, installing networks, buying Apples and teaching computer literacy to everyone from the custodial staff to the superintendent.

Last year, the district received a technology award from the state of Illinois. It also received recognition from the National School Boards Association, which organized a technology site visit for educators from across the country.

Innovations Abound

Among parents in the eight communities it serves, District 214 has always been known as a forward-thinking school system. "Our motto has always been, 'No matter how good we are, we can always get better,' " says Board of Education Chairman Robert Zimmanck, a local businessman who has served on the board for 14 years. "Once we decided computers and technology were here to stay, we said, 'Let's get with it.' "

Around 1994, a group of board members grabbed their camcorders and headed to two high-tech high schools, one in Texas, the other in Colorado. Soon after the site visits, a pilot school was selected and District 214's technology plan was underway. They were also identified as a "lighthouse" district and received several hundred thousand dollars in state funds.

The board had always been fiscally conservative, says Zimmanck, and had made sound investments. They didn't want to take funds away from textbooks, facility upgrades or other needs, so they floated a $22 million working cash bond in 1994. Every year since, they've spent several million more on technology implementation and upgrades.

Last year, the district upgraded its local area network from a 10-megabyte broadcast Ethernet to a 10/100-switched Ethernet. "That's a huge jump," says Mann. "The new network is bigger, better, faster and more efficient." They also increased the capacity of their wide area network 100 times and created a wireless back-up network. "When a backhoe dropped its teeth into the ground and grabbed our fiber cable, the network in one of our buildings died," Mann says. "But nobody knew it. The data automatically jumped to the wireless network."

In addition, nearly every computer from 1994 went out the door. Nine years ago, there were 150 computers in each building. Today, there are 700, with 6,000 total across the district. The support staff has grown from four technicians to 14.

The upgrades required a big allocation; in retrospect, it would have been prudent to set a financial timeline for replacing old technology, Zimmanck says.

"Be cautious about putting technology in place unless you have a plan to maintain and renew the equipment," says Superintendent Elizabeth Ennis. "Early on, we had professionals with teaching certificates running around trying to fix computers!"

According to Ennis, the district recently commissioned an external study of its technology plan to make sure it was deploying personnel efficiently and distributing resources fairly. In the fall, it plans to instate a director of technology and curriculum. "I think we're probably early on among districts in terms of assigning a position to this," says Ennis.

District 214 is used to heading the pack. Last year, when Buffalo Grove High School installed a state-of-the-art fitness center, it became the first high school in the country with Fitlinxx software for tracking student progress. Parent Randall Stakes, who helped raise funds for the project, seems to share the district's "let's go for it" attitude. "They certainly needed to update what they had," Stakes says. "And as long as you're going to do something, you shoot for the moon."

Teaching the Teachers

When technology was first introduced to the district, Bobb Darnell and his staff taught 1,600 people, from administrators to cafeteria workers, to use basic computer applications. Later, Darnell and his assistant, Lynn Meyer, created the District Applied Technology Academy. In return for 60 hours of intensive, integrated training, teachers receive a $1,500 stipend toward the purchase of a Macintosh computer or software. While the first training program was about computer literacy, DATA is much more focused on technology applications in the classroom and improving student learning, Darnell says.

Teachers are asked to review their curriculum and identify specific lessons that could be enhanced through the use of technology. They're also warned that ill-applied technology can dwindle away instructional time. "We have a saying: When in doubt about using technology, don't," Darnell says. "Some lessons are best taught the old-fashioned way."

As a result of the training, "teachers are choosing from a broader array of pedagogy," he reports. "They're able to provide ready feedback to students about their performance, and they're communicating with parents and other teachers via e-mail. They're even creating their own Web sites to communicate their expectations and assignments."

Darnell talks about a new peer-to-peer training program in which "digitally advanced" teachers will adopt other teachers in their department to mentor. He sees greater use of technology by teachers in the future and more on-line instruction.

Engaging learners

Technology is a great way to reach students with different learning styles and abilities, says special education teacher Sue Horan, a 28-year veteran of the district. "Technology is just a wonderful supplement to our teaching," the computer-savvy Horan says. "We want to make lessons as connected to real life as possible, and we believe that kids are understanding the standards more and are much more actively engaged in their lessons."

At Vanguard School, an alternative school of choice for students behind in credits, computers have been used effectively in every subject, says Principal Jan Planz-Schneider. According to Schneider, technology gives students the opportunity to demonstrate what they've learned in different ways. "There's something about this hunt-and-click generation that makes it more interesting for them to sit down at a computer, rather than sit down with a textbook," she says.

At Elk Grove High School, a group of 60 at-risk freshmen were given laptops to use year-round, at home and at school. The students were asked to prepare PowerPoint presentations about a particular time period in history, to present their reports to their reading buddies and mentors from a local telecommunications company, Convergys. The presentations were done in the school's distance learning room.

The students are doing well, but Broderick says its hard to say for certain that technology is the one thing that has eased their academic struggles. "Can you tell that technology in the workplace has increased the bottom line for your company?" he asks. "There are just too many variables to consider."

Measuring Results

Broderick's words are echoed by administrators throughout the district. When it comes to assessing technology and learning, they say, they're relying mostly on observation.

"There's no doubt that we can increase student engagement in learning when we use technology, and we continue to observe this," says Darnell. "For example, we're seeing an increased ability for students to write well. There's just something about being able to write and edit brochures and create professional-looking material on a computer that makes a significant difference to students."

Standardized test scores have risen steadily, but is technology the reason? "In a district like ours, we have a lot of other innovations going at the same time, things like block scheduling and core scheduling," Darnell says. "When you have so many innovations, it's hard to isolate whether technology is improving student learning."

Ennis has the same thing to say. "I couldn't give you hard data. Our standardized test scores have not shown the kind of improvement that I could say, 'Wow, that was the result of technology.' "

But she adds, "I can tell you from observation that the kids look engaged and that surely they must be learning."

Jennifer Covino,, is a contributing editor.