Technology Spurs School Change
Computers are linked to rethinking the education process at an elementary school near Seattle. Second in a four-part weekly series on innovative schools.
THE sound of a computer printer hard at work greets a visitor walking into the office at Cougar Valley Elementary School across Puget Sound from Seattle. It's an appropriate welcome to a public school that is one of the most computer-intensive in the United States.
Through the windows of this low-slung, modern school building, computer screens shine like beacons in classroom corners. Each room boasts six computers for students plus a terminal and printer on each teacher's desk.
"We have 570 students and 250 computers," says Steve Anderson, principal of Cougar Valley, which includes kindergarten through Grade 6.
Even the custodian of this school has a computer. When a light bulb goes out or a desk needs fixing, teachers simply send a computer message and the problem gets resolved.
But what's taking place here is not just about introducing technology into a school.
The Central Kitsap School District, which includes Cougar Valley, is linking the use of computers to a rethinking of the entire education process.
The district began restructuring about five years ago in response to national concern about the condition of education and the district's own need to expand because of increasing enrollment.
About 150 teachers, administrators, and parents participated in the process of outlining Central Kitsap's goals. As part of the resulting long-range plan, the district built two elementary schools with state-of-the-art technology.
Cougar Valley, which opened in September 1989 with the help of a $300,000 grant from Tandy Corporation, was the first stage of this effort. The school is just down a wooded road from Bangor Submarine Base in what used to be logging country. Set in a valley, the building has 22 classrooms arranged in a cloverleaf design with moveable walls and curving hallways.
"We wanted to keep the school as flexible as possible," says Joan Smith, who helped design the new school and now teaches here.
Of the 12,000 students in the school district, 66 percent are from families associated with the Navy. Since the Navy base is exempt from property taxes, the military presence undercuts the region's tax income.
"We're a relatively poor district," says Principal Anderson, "but the community is supportive in passing bond initiatives." Voters have passed every proposed tax increase for the past 14 years.
This financial support and reallocation of existing resources made the new schools and enhanced technology possible. But the district clearly intends to do more than simply install high-tech equipment in new schools.
Since it opened, Cougar Valley has worked with a range of nontraditional approaches:
* Students and teachers stay together for two years at a time. "This is a transient community and so having some consistency in life at school while they're here is real positive," Anderson says. "When they come back in the fall, they know their teacher, where their desks are, and what expectations that teacher has of them."
* Handicapped students and children with learning disabilities are "blended" into regular classrooms for the entire day rather than participating in pull-out programs. Special-education students "have a tendency to be more involved if they're not taken out, and the kids find they're more capable than they thought," Anderson says.
* Each class has a partner class at a different grade level with which they regularly meet for activities. "They are able to proudly show someone their success," says third-grade teacher Ruth Brooks.
* Some teachers work in teams, teaching several grade levels at once.
"We brought all these ideas together in one place," Anderson says. "By trying to do a lot of change, you build a momentum."
It also helps to start a school from scratch, he points out. The teachers "self-selected to come here. The motivation is there; they're willing to take risks. That's the ethic that exists in this building."
Teachers work long hours and had to adjust their notions about what it means to lead students through the learning process.
"It's like beginning as a first-year teacher again," says Sherri Brooks, who has taught for 12 years. "We're not trying to teach from the books."
Instead of emphasizing work sheets and textbooks, teachers focus on group work and individual practice on the computers. "If you don't hand people a textbook, they have to be much more creative," Anderson says.
Teachers and administrators say the computers may well have more impact on the way they do their jobs than on the student learning process.
"It's a totally different role," says fourth-grade teacher Cindy Dodge. "We're facilitating learning and directing learning instead of lecturing. Instead of always asking me, the students ask each other."
For math, Ms. Dodge divides the class in half and has the advanced students do individualized work on the computers while she gives her attention to the others.
At the end of the day, a computer printout updates Dodge on the students who did their math lesson on the computer. The printout outlines the success rate, length of time spent on each problem, and other details of the students' work to help determine what the next lesson should include.
"It would take me a long time to study up on algebra," Dodge says. "But I had a [fourth-grade] kid who was doing algebra on the computer."
The new technology also relieves teachers of burdensome, time-consuming chores and increases communication among the staff. Teachers keep track of attendance on their computers, place lunch orders, schedule meetings, and communicate with their colleagues and the principal through electronic mail.
"If I want to get a message out to somebody," Anderson says, "I can do that in a matter of seconds. I could be the electronic principal if I didn't make the effort to get out of this office and into the halls and classrooms."
A key component to the successes here, Anderson says, is the creation of common planning time for teachers. By extending the students' school day by half an hour a day, teachers have Wednesday afternoons for group planning. "The model is common planning and individual teaching," Anderson explains.
"There's a lot of collaboration among teachers," Dodge says. "The teachers are learners as well as the students. We're all on this continual learning path."
HE change process has been both rewarding and frustrating for everyone involved, according to Anderson.
"People felt real dysfunctional the first year," he says. "Teachers thought they were cheating if they pulled out an old lesson plan.... One of the things that we're finding is that new teachers have almost too much freedom. They were often considered mavericks at other schools and were always working against the system. We almost need to provide some structure for them to react to."
Early in the school's life, some parents took their children out of Cougar Valley and moved them to more traditional schools.
"We had to do some re-education of parents," Anderson says. "When we first opened, one of the major concerns was that kids would spend too much time on the computer." It turns out that each student spends only about one hour a day in front of the computer screen, he says.
Most parents were accustomed to seeing work sheets and other samples of student work coming home regularly. With the introduction of computer work, parents stopped seeing this trail of paper and thought their children weren't getting enough to do.
"Now we emphasize communication between home and school" by holding workshops for parents and eliciting their input whenever possible, Anderson says.
An on-going challenge for the school is training teachers on the technology. New teachers get only a few days of initial training. But one teacher who knew almost nothing about computers before coming to Cougar Valley says, "Now, I couldn't live without it. It's my lifeline." Next week: A corporate-funded school in Chicago serves an inner-city neighborhood. The first article in this series appeared on Jan. 6.