Taking Technology to its Limit
Technology is so prevalent today, why not engage students in school with the same interactive devices and communication tools they love using? That’s the approach the Princeton City (Ohio) School District is taking as it employs a dizzying number of technology devices, software programs, and social media platforms to complement classroom instruction, homework, and extracurricular activities, and bring together students, teachers, counselors and families in a virtual community that increases support, accountability, and ultimately student success.
Teachers like Shawn McMullen, a technology specialist for grades 6 through 12, has student interns use “a vast array of technology every single day”—iPads, handheld cameras, and editing programs like iMovie and Adobe Premiere—to record and edit photos and videos used to create advertising collateral like newsletters and brochures for the district. Lindsay Holliday teaches art at Princeton High School, where students’ favorite art-making apps include Sketchbook Pro, Art Rage and PS Touch, and apps for learning and reference in photography classes. Her AP Studio Art students also use the presentation program Prezi—a more visual version of the presentation software, PowerPoint—to create presentations while on site at field trips to Ohio’s Taft Museum of Art.
Social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and Txtwire—a direct text messaging service that predates Twitter and can be used to push instant information to specific groups—are used when the district’s news needs to be spread fast, like sports scores, curricular topics, updates on school construction, and student celebrations. “I feel that Princeton is extremely groundbreaking in this area,” says William T. Sprankles III, Princeton’s grades 6-12 central principal. “It is very important for schools to communicate through whatever is the most popular and effective social media platform for their community.”
Princeton is one of Ohio’s most diverse districts and comprises six taxing municipalities situated in a major entertainment and business area. With more than 35 languages spoken in district schools, it’s on its way to becoming a 30/30/30 district—where African American, white, and Hispanic/Latino students are represented equally, and 10 percent of students are of other ethnicities and races. Notably, Princeton High School hosts one of only 22 International Baccalaureate (IB) Diploma Programmes in Ohio and has graduated more than 125 students with IB diplomas. The district has also produced 20 National Merit Scholars in the last five years, and the high school has a graduation rate of 94 percent for African American students.
As recent as five years ago, the technology landscape at the Princeton district in Sharonville, five miles north of Cincinnati, focused on adding technology to every classroom. “Everyone had computers, everyone had the hardware,” says Amy Crouse, the district’s associate superintendent. But those computers were only for teacher use, and there was “no true training to use it properly with their students,” she says.
Since 2010-2011, more than $600,000 has been invested in providing hardware for all teachers and for students to access technology like iPads, iPod Touches, and AppleTV, which is Apple’s digital media server to stream pictures and key videos displayed on television. That strategy “is about shifting to comprehensive technology,” says Superintendent Gary Pack.
In the last year, the district spent $450,000 for K8 teachers to receive MacBook Pro laptops, and in 2013-2014, it will spend another $300,000 for grades 9-12 teachers to receive them. “Now, it’s about [implementing technology] in the entire district, in all capacities,” says Pack, like smartboards that have also been installed in every core teacher’s classroom.
Starting in 2013-2014, middle school students will enter a wireless building with classrooms offering a 1:3 ratio of technology, and instructional design that Sprankles says will “foster collaboration, and prepare students for a 1:1 culture at the high school level.” For the 2014-2015 school year, the high school side will open as a wireless, 1:1 learning environment with all students receiving Apple laptops. Another feature of the building will be 12 technology hubs throughout the school with charging stations for students to plug their devices into. The technology portion of the school’s funding totaled $4 million.
To say Princeton uses a dizzying array of gadgets, including document cameras, to spur learning is an understatement. Here is a snapshot:
• iPads: From preschoolers to the gifted, iPads are accessible to K12 students. Kindergarten teacher Julie Sonnek uses iPads in four math stations where kids use different math-learning apps at every turn. “iPad Carts” equipped with 30 devices can also be reserved by any teacher for special projects. In Glendale Elementary, the Parent Teacher Association spent more than $25,000 to put iPads in every classroom.
• iPod Touches: K12 students check them out from media centers to collect data and record what they’re seeing on field trips for video presentations.
• Hand-held video recorders: Used for project-based learning activities for interviews, to record performances, and for raw footage for longer video productions and slide shows.
• Smartphones: If students have their own phones, they use them with websites like PollEverywhere.com, an interactive web platform that allows them to cast their vote about an issue or question proposed by a teacher and complete a questionnaire.
Another innovative program is Naviance, a web-based platform that lets students develop an online, personalized college and career readiness plan. “We believe our mission is to help students discover their passion, and then get a plan to achieve their passion as their life’s work and individual mission,” says Sprankles.
Social Media Savviness
In 2008-2009, Princeton started using social media, beginning with Facebook as a tool to reconnect with alumni, and get parent and community feedback. The site has 5,500 fans and is monitored and updated by staff within the district. Princeton’s Twitter feed has accumulated 794 followers since it was started in 2010. And according to Sprankles, who maintains the Twitter profile, the district “trended,” or caused many people to discuss the same thing on Twitter at the same time, nationwide for specific “hashtags” or topics of discussion or groups. These included the passing of the district’s school levy and the district’s Senior Academic Retreat Day, under the hashtag #ProtectMyPlan.
The district’s YouTube channel, “PrincetonVikings,” has more than 70,000 views and is used to create videos for curriculum, sports, traffic, and to even campaign for school levies. “The greatest challenge [to using social media] has been watching how ‘communication’ unfolds,” says Sprankles. “If something that is ‘newsworthy’ happens in the evening and you tweet about it, the next day many students show up to school and know what has happened long before many of the adults know.”
And the district’s blog—Leadership247—has had more than 10,000 views and features articles written by teachers, central office staff, administrators, and sometimes, students.
Steps Toward Success
In the last few years, the district has used technology to develop a “virtual community” to help the district pass two key school levies. The first was in 2010, when Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and Txtwire Technologies were used to educate taxpayers in hopes they’d pass a $129 million school construction levy to build a new school for grades 6 through 12, where half of the school would be devoted to middle school instruction and the other half to high school. The levy passed.
In 2012, the district passed an operating levy. School officials credit social media for reaching community members. “We had to use all four virtual platforms to build our comprehensive virtual community,” says Sprankles, which was done by recording and developing informational and motivational videos and emailing links to the community. “In the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression, the school board approved the resources, structure, facilities, and technology-related services that would enhance student achievement, engagement, and performance for the next 50 years.”
Princeton City Schools
- Schools: 10
- Students: 5,600
- Staff and faculty: 774
- Per-child expenditure: $12,298
- Dropout rate: 6 percent (2010-2011)
- Students receiving free or reduced-price lunch: 59 percent