Schools just keep getting SMART-er

Use of technology still expanding

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Sandy Grassel jokes that she's the least tech-savvy person in her school. But fact is, just about everyone involved in Propel charter schools' organization -- from kindergartners on up to the teaching staff -- knows a great deal about the latest in education technology.

"She doesn't give herself enough credit," said Joe Oliphant.

Mr. Oliphant, Propel director of technology, is a former teacher. He's still in the classroom, however, training teachers and administrators how to embrace a 21st-century vision of the little red schoolhouse.

Although schools both public and private have been warming to the concept of teaching through interactive computer programs on a whiteboard, Propel has leaped into the digital flames.

"I'd say we spend as much outside our budget [through grants] as we do inside, on technology," Ms. Grassel said.

Ms. Grassel, of Bethel Park, is principal at Propel East in Turtle Creek, where, she said, on any given day, Mr. Oliphant will bound into the office with news of some kind of technology and exclaim, "I have to show you this!"

The charter program staged its first technology conference last Monday at Propel Montour. It was part of in-service days for the charter organization staff, but free workshops and demonstrations of products from SMART Technologies attracted teachers and staff from at least 20 outside schools and organizations.

Non-Propel attendees included Keystone Oaks, Fox Chapel, West Allegheny, Moon, City of Pittsburgh schools, Clairton, Highlands and Montour. The daylong program featured workshops with the sort of titles guaranteed to baffle those over a certain age: "Geocaching," "Glogster," "Organization and portfolios using Wikispaces" and "How to create classroom Web sites using Shutterfly."

Many schools have whiteboards, which are flat-panel screens that hang on the wall. They do more than just display projected materials, however. As computer screens, they can be programmed to run interactive programs that engage and entertain as well as enhance a teacher's lesson plan.

At the conference, one such SMART board was set up to display a middle-school algebra program. Lindsey Smith, a Propel math coach, was moving around olive-green squares representing components of an equation.

By sliding her finger along the touch-sensitive screen, she was able to arrange the equation, add to it, correct any errors. This SMART Network program was capable of challenging the user to solve problems in a way that might appeal to a generation of students raised on technology.

Across the room, another SMART board was running a program designed by high school students. Characters from Fox's "The Simpsons" were living in a 3-D simulation of a house, where the walls could be "walked through."

Whiteboards connect to computers physically through a USB cable, or wirelessly, via Bluetooth.

On a more elementary level, teachers were trying out one of SMART's latest products, a computerized table geared toward kindergarten to grade 3 as well as special needs children.

The tabletop was a darkened screen. Against the black background, a challenge appeared: "Something that some living things do with their eyes ... "

Next, round discs of various colors floated onscreen, each with a single word in the center. A number of the discs contained the word "See." Players -- the table can be programmed to accept up to 40 fingers pointing to choices -- were rewarded for picking the right answers with a little tune.

"It's always positive reinforcement," said Rebecca Lake, an accounts representative for Calgary-based SMART Technologies.

The growing appeal of whiteboards --SMART has more than a million in use worldwide -- has "changed the way teachers teach and the way students are engaged," Ms. Lake said.

"This isn't about teaching students how to use computers," said Matt Friedman, Keystone Oaks director of curriculum. "Technology is part of everyday learning ... we are a technology-driven society at this point."

It's no surprise that cutting-edge changes in the classroom don't come cheap. The average SMART board costs between $1,600 and $2,000; the SMART table, which just arrived on the market last spring, will run about $6,000-$8,000. Propel, which has at least 85 whiteboards in its five school buildings, has not yet purchased one. Certainly, grant money goes a long way. The Keystone Oaks School District received $200,000 in Classrooms for the Future funds this year. It purchased seven Promethean boards -- technology similar to SMART -- for the high school and laptops.

At the middle-school levels, such technology is also in place, although Mr. Friedman said the long-term goal is to bolster the high-tech teaching tools at the elementary level.

"It's almost our obligation to use technology in our classrooms so the students, after they leave the walls of our school, can be cutting-edge members of our society."

Like Mr. Oliphant, Mr. Friedman initially encountered some resistance from some of the more veteran teachers.

"Once you're over that initial hurdle and the teachers see the benefit, it's almost like a natural evolution," Mr. Friedman said.

Although this generation of parents is certainly more tech-savvy than its predecessors, there's still a measure of skepticism.

"Kids are not bringing home books," Ms. Grassel said. "But just because you don't have a book, doesn't mean you don't have resources."

Nonetheless, she added, "It's hard for parents to understand sometimes, but it's clear to them that something wonderful is going on."

Indeed, Pennsylvania System of School Assessment scores have improved steadily at Propel schools.

West Mifflin Area School District has established two "21st Century" classrooms, one at the high school, one for the fourth grade. These include Promethan boards, ceiling-mounted projectors and mobile carts with up to 30 computers for student use.

In South Allegheny, 152 desktop computers were replaced with netbooks, which are about half the size of laptops. The plan is to use stimulus money to fund the change. Chartiers Valley also is replacing 30 teachers' desktops with netbooks, which are cheaper than laptops because they don't have as many bells and whistles.

The Write to Learn program at McMurray Elementary School in Peters will also use netbooks. The five Bethel Park elementary schools each received $10,000 in Highmark School Challenge grant money this year, which went toward purchasing Nintendo Wii consoles and "Fit" exercise game systems. Another growing trend in high school technology is distance education. Students can participate in a form of videoconferencing.

"Last year, we talked to NASA as they were getting ready to go to Mars; we talked to classes in Georgia," said Anthony Rubet, a Penn Hills resident and student at Propel's Andrew Street High School in Munhall.

"You can do anything you want," said Luther Parrish, who also lives in Penn Hills and attends Andrew Street. "Say someone wants to talk to an engineer; you can find one."

If students want to study, say, Mandarin, it's possible that in the future they might be able to take classes through a distance education with another school that teaches it.

"People have been using it for business purposes, and education is picking up on this," Mr. Oliphant said. "I think it's just awesome."


Maria Sciullo can be reached at msciullo@post-gazette.com or 412-851-1867. Mary Niederberger contributed to this story.


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