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The Top Ten Technology Districts

Everyone knows that school districts are not the first places to run to when you want to seek out the latest trends in technology. At best, K-12 is about two years behind the business sector in buying and implementing new technology.

But a funny thing is happening across the country. Some school districts are not only catching up to businesses, but in some cases, passing them.

It is because of these achievements that we bring you our choices of the Top Ten Technology Districts. Culling through the nuggets contained in each profile, you'll find that some districts are creating software programs to meet their specific needs, testing tablet PCs, rolling out new products to 25,000 users at a time, and creating networks that link residents not only to schools, but also City Hall and local libraries.

When the District Administration staff sat down over several meetings to pick these winners, we found that nationally recognized districts, such as Henrico in Virginia and Plano in Texas, were easy choices. But the lessons learned from less well-known districts, such as Oswego in New York, are no less powerful. We hope the information you get in these profiles will help you launch your school closer to the standards these winners have set.


Anoka-Hennepin Independent School District 11

A consortium of 13 towns north of Minneapolis, Minnesota

Why They Were Chosen

When Director of Technology Patrick Plant heard Anoka-Hennepin had been given this award, he joked that the district had won for "best use of obsolete technology." That's because Anoka-Hennepin, like many other school districts in Minnesota and the rest of the country, has faced a severe budget crunch. One reason Minnesota was especially hard hit financially: Gov. Jesse Ventura, who is leaving office Jan. 1, told voters in 2001 that school districts were asking for more money than they needed in bond issues.

Residents in the district passed two bond measures last month, saving four schools from closing and reinstating 100 teacher positions. But voters narrowly rejected two other questions and an attempt to pass a $12 million bond to replace outdated computers and tech infrastructure. Even with the budget shortfalls, the district has been inventive in its use of technology for years. Some achievements include being one of the first districts to test the Schools Interoperability Framework in 1998. Other accomplishments: Creating a grading and reporting tool online that the district is licensing to other districts; partnering with Atomic Learning to create around-the-clock professional development, and creating a statewide volume discount purchase program that has allowed districts to save on their expenditures. "We do make the most out of everything we have, including older technology," Plant admits.

Favorite technology

"Our Web site, because of the way we've empowered people to use it as a communication tool. It's so much more powerful than a year ago. It's happening faster and better than I would have hoped," says Patrick Plant, director of technology.

Most exotic experiment

In Evergreen Park elementary school, the district has spent federal desegregation money to outfit each student in grades 3-5 with laptops. "It's been a huge success," says Randy Edinger, instructional tech facilitator. "They have plenty of digital cameras, and they conduct lots of Internet research."

What's the EEPR program

It's the district-created Elementary Electronic Progress Reporting program. It allows elementary educators to keep grades, course objectives, test scores, development reading assessments and other information for each student right at their fingertips. The district created this program using Pearson's SASI database program because other programs didn't offer the flexibility needed, says Vicki Tjaden, an assistant principal on special assignment.

"We have a pretty solid reputation for developing things," she adds, noting that the program was tested for a year in four of the district's schools. The program is such a success, Anoka-Hennepin has already sold the the software to other school districts.

Biggest tech roadblock

"I'm hesitant to move forward with posting confidential student information on the Web until we have the security we need," Plant says.

If they had an extra $100,000 to spend

"I'd likely go into the ultimate info architecture to meet parent, staff and student needs. I don't see anything more important than this," Plant says.

If they had $1,000

Plasma screens. "I'd get something to R&D, something cutting-edge," Plant says.

Next tech leap

The Riverview Magnet School opens in fall 2003. The district's first magnet school, located a block from the Mississippi River, will feature math and science, with an emphasis on environmental science. Funded with federal desegregation money, each class plans to feature five networked computers, a laser printer, a digital video camera, a digital camera and a scanner. Teachers will each have laptops and PDAs, says Edinger.

Advice to other districts

Careful planning is important, but don't be afraid to take a risk occasionally, says Edinger. "It's crucial that there's enough support personnel, both in the building and at the district level. In technology, the key words are staff development, staff development, staff development."

Baltimore City Public Schools

Baltimore, Maryland

Why They Were Chosen

The Baltimore City public school system has enjoyed a rebirth during the past five years, and there's a palpable excitement about its future, especially how technology will shape the education of the district's 105,000 students. The district is collaborating with community organizations and securing myriad state, federal and private grants in its quest for technology implementation. This fall, it opened the Digital Harbor Technology Academy, which provides high school students with career-track courses such as programming and digital video production.

Blueprint for technology implementation

The district's 20-page Information Technology Resources Policy outlines goals for implementing technology in the next 18 months, from wiring all 179 school buildings to using software for student assessment, data keeping and individualized learning, to introducing "smart card" technology to enter buildings and order lunches. Forty-eight school buildings have been wired so far and 80 others are underway, says Gregory Burkhardt, the district's director of classroom support systems.

How this large, urban district received help from outside agencies

Baltimore City Mayor Martin O'Malley helped raise funds to upgrade 6,000 computers donated to the district by the Social Security Administration. The district also received sizeable grants from the Gates Foundation and the McArthur Foundation, plus an IBM grant that will help create a teacher support system using Learning Village software. Teachers will have access to student records, professional development tools and databases such as BigChalk. "We're a relatively impoverished district and school is often the only location students are going to get access to technology," says Burkhardt. "To close our funding gap, outside partnerships are critical."

State and federal funds

The Technology in Maryland Schools program and the federal E-rate program, both begun in 1997, have helped provide a reliable funding stream for infrastructure wiring and other improvements.

Motivation to be tech-forward

The City Board of School Commissioners has been supportive and open-minded, according to Burkhardt. "I think we're on the verge of great things," he says. "Things are starting to pick up, and we've been challenged by our school board to think better, to think higher, to think further."

The Digital Harbor Technology Academy

Located in a traditional high school building, the academy opened its doors this fall to 320 ninth-grade students and plans to add an additional grade the next three years. Students from across the city are accepted on a first-come, first-serve basis to study a traditional curriculum, as well as career pathways in networking and computer systems, programming, information systems, and interactive media and digital video. As renovations take place, infrastructure is being laid to create computer lab-style classrooms, a television production studio, and a 21st-century school "library" with a cyber cafe, seminar rooms, print and non-print information resources, and a graphic production copy center. "Every student who successfully completes the program on time will be leaving with a laptop," says Principal Michael Pitroff.

What's ahead

"I would expect every classroom to be wired and every student to have access to the Internet and e-mail," says Burkhardt. "I see more use of online tools, e-books as replacements for textbooks, and individualized learning in the way and speed each student needs it."

If they had an extra $100,000 to spend

"I'd split it between technology training for teachers and hardware for students," Burkhardt says.

If they had $1,000

Burkhardt would opt for technology add-ons such as VIZ cameras and scientific measuring tools that could, for example, track the speed of an object during a physics experiment.

Advice to other districts

"Choose your staff carefully," says Pitroff. "If you have the right people, everything else falls into place."

Chapel Hill-Carrboro City School District

Carrboro, North Carolina

Why They Were Chosen

Tech tools and the support that gets them used. That's the simple formula this district uses to ensure that administrators, teachers and students are using technology. With the help of inspiring summer technology camps and a full-time technology specialist in every school, teachers are integrating technology into the curriculum. The district's Connect 2 School initiative is implementing thin-client solutions to help close the digital divide and offer school-to-home technology.

Favorite technology

The school-to-home environment, created by servers running Citrix software and Think NIC thin-client computers, which is being implemented now. "Thin-client computing has enabled us to increase our reliability rate, provide a consistent desktop to everyone, reduce our support costs and provide access for students and teachers no matter where they are," says Chief Technology Officer Raymond Reitz.

Most hated technology

"Stand-alone inkjet printers and old computers that people don't want to give up," Reitz says.

Best tech trick

Don't invest in "bleeding-edge" technology, Reitz says. "We want to provide our students and staff with contemporary technology solutions. However, we prefer to have others do the beta testing. We need to invest [in] and focus on mainstream, proven solutions."

Another tech trick

Using the district's Web site as a recruiting tool. During the recruiting season, Reitz says the district was receiving 25 to 30 online applications per day versus five paper applications per week, significantly reducing the need for newspaper ads. Job fair registrations have doubled this year, the first year they were offered online. The district's recruiting CD, which has video and Web links, is cited by new hires as one of the reasons they selected the district.

If they had an extra $100,000 to spend

"It would go to refresh older computers," Reitz says, adding that he'd like the district's typical computer refresh rate to go from five to four years. "It's difficult for schools to give up old equipment. ... They feel like they need to hold onto computers as long as they work."

If they had $1,000

Reitz would buy an extra network printer or digital camera.

Next software purchase

A tool to assist with curriculum alignment and mapping.

Technology implementation plan

The technology component of the district's 2002-2008 strategic plan has four objectives, with strategies and indicators of implementation spelled out.

Getting technology into the classrooms

The Cyber Stars program recognizes teacher pioneers in technology integration who have created exemplary Web pages. Elementary Spanish teachers Kathy MacKinnon and Carlos Perera, who received recognition in January, use their Web page to share the district's second language philosophy, dispel myths about language learning and offer activities and learning tips for students and parents. MacKinnon says that a template provided to teachers in a professional development session helped her create the page in a minimal amount of time-an important factor for her as an itinerant teacher. During a teacher summer "technology camp," she learned about Web quests and has since added a Web treasure hunt for students to her site. Teachers attend these week-long camps on their own time, Reitz says.

Problems that keep them up at night

Increasing technology integration in appropriate curricular areas, and the digital divide. "For teachers to integrate technology into classrooms, it needs to be simple, flexible, and most importantly, reliable," Reitz says. "We're increasing our reliability rate by decreasing the number and complexity of hardware and software solutions we roll out to schools." For students without computers, the district is piloting a program that places Internet-access devices in their homes.

Advice to other districts

With the district's Web page getting 60,000 visitors a month, Web architect Meredith Weiss says that an outside host has helped keep Internet traffic moving. Reitz says it's important to establish a clear vision and encourage community involvement in technology efforts. He also reminds administrators that it's crucial to get school leadership support and offer staff development. "Don't forget to focus on people and process first-then on the technology tools to support them," he adds.

Henrico County Public Schools

Richmond, Virginia

Why They Were Chosen

It's sleek. It's hip. And it's in the hands of more than 23,000 students.

Henrico County (Va.) School District was chosen because it was the first district to give Apple iBook laptop computers to every sixth- through 12th-grader.

The district received the Pioneer Award from National School Boards Association as well as the Governor's Gold Star award, for exemplary leadership in technology deployment in public schools, and the Greater Richmond Technology Councils Skills-Builder Award. In November, NSBA awarded Henrico with the Trailblazer Award for its innovative technology program.

Why they did it

"We had a serious digital divide," says Superintendent Mark Edwards. "We knew 40 percent of the students did not have access to technology at home or in libraries so this has served as a bridge to the digital divide. And students have grown up in a digital world.

"One student said that before the laptops, it was like we were teaching to drive a car using a horse. Now, the student said, we're teaching how to drive a car using a car."

How laptops are used

Virtually every subject. Working with BigChalk and Beyond Books, among others, the district uses digital content to aid lessons. Online discussions with experts or watching geometric figures evolve on a screen give students a here-and-now view of subjects, Edwards says. And science students can watch lab problems solved step-by-step through video productions.

The cost

Buying laptops for every student (in volume and already having the infrastructure) cost $18.6 million, cheaper than buying a single desktop in each classroom, which would have cost $19.6 million, Edwards says.

How iBooks make a difference in the classroom

"The biggest benefit is like having a library at your fingertips," says Nancy Ford, U.S. history and government teacher at Godwin High School.

"It's instant access to truly endless resources, various historical sites, current government information. ... It's current information, and it's balanced information. Kids can find neat resources that are more current and alive through iBooks."

How the laptop has changed education

"Here, it has been a pretty dramatic change on the focus, trying to get teachers to incorporate different techniques instead of just lecturing in front of the classroom," Ford says. "While lecturing can be effective ... we're trying to get kids involved in the learning process."

Change in student achievement

"It's hard to tell," Ford says. "The state SOL scores have gone up dramatically ... from five years ago to this past year." But the connection between achievement and laptops is still unclear.

Change in student academic life

"It makes it easier," says Raymond Palmer Jr., a senior at Varina High School. "Sometimes when I'm on the road, traveling with my parents, I can do word processing and numerous activities, and I have a calculator so I can do my math work, too."

Laptop philosophy

"I think students who are motivated to work and want to learn to use iBooks should have them," Palmer says. "The possibilities are pretty much unlimited."

Future plans

A full-time trainer at the high and junior high schools for ongoing support to teachers and giving laptops to every third-through fifth-grader in the next two years, Edwards says.

Biggest technology flop

Lack of capacity of the network to handle information. Problems have been resolved with an upgrade.

Best technology trick

Buy in bulk.

If they had an extra $100,000 to spend

Guarantee an Internet service provider so students could use laptops effectively 24-7, Edwards says.

If they had $1,000

Digital cameras.

Advice to other districts

"Our children can't wait and the future is now," Edwards says. "We need to be preparing them for a future that few of us can even visualize."

Lake Washington School District #414

Redmond, Washington

Why They Were Chosen

Technology is everywhere in the Lake Washington (Wash.) School District.

High-tech learning centers are in four high schools. A four-tiered professional development program helps teachers learn how to use computers and integrate this knowledge in the classroom. And an educational plan ranges from having kindergartners start banging on computer keyboards to having high school students use computer-assisted design for senior projects.

Chosen as a model site for technology integration by the National School Boards Association last year, Lake Washington has been a technology leader since the early 1990s.

Best technology trick

"You first need to put in a robust infrastructure and develop a plan" for faculty members and teachers to access, says Chip Kimball, assistant superintendent for information services. "We clearly have a good infrastructure and fiber optics in every classroom. ... By and large, we're the exception [to digital disconnect]. We're the upper 10 percent of the technologically capable."

How students are using technology

In K-2, students use Reality Based Learning, an early literacy software program, to acquire technical and literacy skills through activities, Kimball says. In grades three and four, students use more productivity-type tools to develop cognitive ability, such as applying an Excel spreadsheet for math. And in high school, students have high-tech learning centers, where they learn about video editing, digital media and certification programs, such as Cisco or Oracle Academy.

As part of the Northeast Vocational Area Cooperative, Lake Washington's Juanita High School offers courses that other schools in the same or other nearby districts don't, and vice versa, so students can travel from school to school to take courses. For example, Juanita High offers Architectural Draw and Design, which many students from other districts take.

Four-tiered professional development program

Tier 1, or Information Navigator, involves five core competencies in which all teachers need to demonstrate proficiency, Kimball says. Tier 2 is Information Integrator, a week-long institute to learn how to integrate technology into student-centered curriculum using Web publishing and organization tools. Tier 3 is Information Synthesizer that teaches how to use data effectively. Tier 4, under development, will help teachers use specific applications to increase student performance.

Favorite technology

"The kids really enjoy Internet-based things," says Jack Tobin, third-grade teacher at Albert Einstein Elementary School. "There are lots of Web sites. There are math problems kids can do, type the answer in and check it. They get immediate feedback."

How elementary students use technology

Students meet with teachers and parents in a goal-setting conference. Tobin says his students make an Excel graph of their own spelling test scores and use PowerPoint to present it on an overhead screen. They could explain that their goal is to get at least 90 percent of their answers correct. "So they're actually using technology to present the goal as a teacher would give a presentation to the staff, and they're using Excel for graphs and Microsoft Word to write their goal," Tobin says.

What students think of technology

"The third-graders do realize this is a special thing-that they have their own computers," Tobin says. "They're still jazzed about it. And they don't complain when we do paper-and-pencil things either. Before they write a letter, I have them jot down a list of ideas first and then they go back to the computer to write it."

Student achievement

"Part of the difficulty is to link achievement with technology," says Jane Todd, principal at Juanita High School. "I think kids are much more proficient at using technology and interested in incorporating technology in the classroom. The trick is how to make sure it isn't passive."

Most exotic piece of technology

"We are testing one of our first tablet PCs" that transforms written notes in longhand into a typed format on the computer, Kimball says. "It will have tremendous implications. It's wireless. It's battery-operated..."

If they had an extra $100,000 to spend

Wireless laptop labs, Kimball says. Now, the district has seven laptops.

If they had $1,000

"I'd buy a PDA for the superintendent because ultimately it's through modeling the use of technology that will create the imperative for the organization to change," Kimball says.

Advice to other districts

"From a hardware perspective, focus on strong hardware standards," Kimball says. "From a cultural perspective, develop a comprehensive and systematic professional development strategy. From a software perspective, it's important to develop a strategy that is proven to increase performance."

Lemon Grove School District

Lemon Grove, California

Why They Were Chosen

Not only can the Lemon Grove School District boast a high-speed WAN that connects the district's schools and administration offices, it can claim it's doing what other districts only dream about: offering a community-wide network. Operated by the district, for no profit, Project LemonLink connects the district to students' homes, City Hall, Public Works Department, fire stations and senior centers. In Lemon Grove, the academic goals for 4,800 K-8 pupils, many of whom have limited English proficiency, include students' ability to "learn to utilize technology effectively as an everyday tool."

The district's network features several aspects that make it distinct: a mix of microwave and fiber optics handle WAN linkage; two-thirds of the PCs in classrooms are actually thin-client machines called Winterms, powered by the Windows CE OS; the district acts as application service provider itself, using Citrix