Award-Winning Schools’ Secret Weapons

| December 28, 2010 | 1 Comment
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What does a 21st century school district look like?

The Howell Township Public School District in Howell, New Jersey is a great example: It snagged first place this year in the 2010 Digital School District Survey for medium-sized districts.

Some of the more notable attributes from Howell include:

  • Advanced, project-based uses of technology in the classroom such as music composition, video game production, computer programming, podcasting, and the integration of a huge number of free online tools like Skype, Voki, and more.
  • The Parent Portal, which allows parents online access to student assignments, attendance, and grades, to communicate with teachers, and even to add money to their child’s lunch fund.
  • The SharePoint Portal, which allows teachers and administrators to post student data and share resources for classroom lessons and assessments.
  • Dynamic computerized assessments, which adapt to a student’s academic level during the test-taking period and help teachers gauge learning needs.

Claire Engle, Supervisor of Instructional Technology at Howell schools, explains that thanks to an initial influx of $7.8 million from a technology referendum in 1999, the infrastructure is in place to build better practices. More important, however, is the how and why of technology integration. Ongoing teacher training, effective application on Web-based tools, and partnerships with other schools around the country, Engle says, are invaluable to maintaining Howell’s status as a high-caliber, high-tech district.

Q: What do you see as the district’s most effective and replicable uses of technology so far?

A: Probably the most replicable aspect of what we do is use free, Web-based tools. Skype or new Google videoconferencing tools, for example, allow teachers and students to connect to each other, outside experts, individuals at home who couldn’t come to class that day, or even individuals across the world. If students are learning about a certain country, one student might have a relative from that country, and videoconferencing allows that person to share their story.

We’re also using social bookmarking, so if people are sharing a computer and switching devices a lot, they still have their online bookmarks. On Voki, kids are creating avatars, characters for stories that they’ve read, and online presentations.

These are just snippets of what we use, though — it’s endless, the amount of free, Web-based tools out there.

Q: How has the district funded its technology initiatives?

A: We had that $7.8 million referendum passed in 1999, when we were able to implement computers in the classroom, put in computer labs, and upgrade our wiring and our video broadcasting system. It took those dollars to get the technological infrastructure in place. Since that time, we’ve just been expanding on it. We also have an education foundation that provides grants for us: the Howell Township Education Foundation. It helps use to move the technology along, to acquire new things. We’ve also applied for a lot of competitive grants.

So obviously, there are things that we’ve done that have cost money. Handheld devices that students are using for podcasting, a technology education class where kids are actually creating video games. But as long as you have the hardware, there are still so many free, Web-based tools now that can take care of so many things for schools and districts.

Q: How do you train teachers on how to best integrate technology?

A: We’re a very collaborative district. We share a lot. Even if just one person goes to a workshop, they’ll share during prep periods. Additionally, this past November, we had a full-day district in-service training session where the topic was Web 2.0 tools. We’re also forming partnerships with other districts. We hold Webinars with them. The beauty of the Webinar is that you can have individuals from all over the country in attendance. You’re no longer attending a workshop with people just from your region.

The school board has been extremely committed to providing professional development days during the school year as well. There are two full-day in-services, then two shortened-day in-services. These are not always committed to technology, but this year, they definitely were. We also have a continuing education program in the district, where teachers apply to teach courses, ten-hour courses or two-hour seminars.

Q: How does the district filter its Internet access?

A: Our firewall blocks specific sites [but most of those sites are added manually]. We we do not block YouTube because it has so much educational value. If we’re blocking it, then we’re not teaching kids what’s appropriate. We’ve trained the teachers to be good kid-watchers. They’re that “guide on the side” as opposed to a “sage on the stage.” They’re working with kids, they’re talking to them. If something comes up they’re right there; it’s a good way to problem-solve with kids. They’ll say, “Let’s take a look at what makes it inappropriate. Should we call the IT department and have them block that URL?”

We’re preparing kids for the real world. We can’t put them in a bubble and then expect them to know how to address these things when they go home.

Q: How do you keep parents up to speed with district initiatives?

We already have a lot of community involvement in the district, and we definitely use technology to communicate with them. From our Web site you can sign up for our Listserv, so that whenever any information is posted it’s sent home to parents’ email. We also utilize the local television channel to keep in touch with families. With the ParentPortal, parents get a secure login. The can see their child’s class assignments, grades, and progress reports, and a direct email link goes to a teacher’s inbox.

Q: Has technology integration affected your district’s state and national assessments?

It’s funny, I was just at a conference last week where everyone was saying, “There is no way to determine whether technology increases student achievement.” Can we say that we hope it is? Yes, but the thing is, no matter whether it is affecting the assessments or not, we know that we are preparing kids for the 21st century. It’s not just about “utilizing technology to support learning” anymore. It’s the way teaching should be. We’re not using technology to enhance instruction — we’re using it for instruction.

[Underwritten by Microsoft and sponsored by e.Republic’s Center for Digital Education and the National School Boards Association, the Digital School District Survey recognizes districts that use technology effectively in district governance, class curriculum, and communication with parents, community members, students, and staff.]

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