E-mail for teachers, technology ‘help desk’

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It’s 8:15 a.m. Monday at Hi-Mount Community Elementary School on Milwaukee’s West Side—time for morning announcements. Fifth-graders are at the microphone with information about Columbus Day, parent-teacher conferences and a school rummage sale. They lead the Pledge of Allegiance and read the lunch menu, featuring Milwaukee bratwurst.

But at Hi-Mount, students and staff don’t just listen to announcements over a public-address system. That’s because the announcements here come in the form of the Hi-Mount Morning News. On television monitors in each classroom, students watch the live, near-broadcast-quality program originating from the school’s second-floor television studio, better known as the distance learning lab.

Meanwhile, across town at A. E. Burdick Elementary School on the city’s South Side, a group of sixth-graders excitedly elbow their way into the city’s first “digital classroom.” Long rows of silvery iMac computers sit on top of specially designed computer tables, creating an image that seems out of place in the 73-year-old red-brick building. Within minutes, the students have logged on to the computers, accessed the Internet and begun downloading text and graphics for a social studies project. They will spend half of their day here, five days a week.

Hi-Mount and Burdick are ahead of the curve when it comes to integrating technology into the classroom. But throughout Milwaukee Public Schools, an ambitious vision of technology is beginning to take hold. It addresses access and equity, teacher training and student data management, partnerships with businesses and higher education. And at its center, it embraces the idea of technology as a tool of school reform, deeply integrated into all aspects of day-to-day teaching and learning.

Whether Milwaukee manages to put this plan in place on a scale large enough to make a difference for the majority of its nearly 100,000 students remains to be seen. And few downplay the challenge the district faces.

“You’ve got a school system that is heavily impacted with low-income minorities, that still remains racially isolated, and has a history of not responding very well to the academic and social needs of those children,” says Larry Cuban, professor of education at Stanford University. Going beyond the lighthouse schools—the handful of schools like Hi-Mount and Burdick that have already made technology work—will be difficult. No urban school district has made such a transition, Cuban says.

Troubled district

Ten years ago, after decades of dismal student performance, Milwaukee gave birth to the nation’s school choice movement. Further eroding support for the public schools are Gov. Tommy Thompson’s periodic threats to “take over” the city schools, Mayor John Norquist’s strong endorsement of private and public school choice and a politically contentious and frequently ineffective school board.

Already, though, the district has put some of its vision of technology in place. Last fall, the school system opened a new $2.25 million state-of-the-art technology training and support center featuring four computer labs, a video conferencing lab and three seminar rooms designed to provide hands-on training to 60 teachers at a time. Paid for with district money and manned by a staff of 13, the center also houses the district’s technology help desk, which is set up to troubleshoot problems with the district’s 15,000 computers. In all, the district employs the equivalent of one full-time technology support person for every 2.5 schools.

Student records

At the same time, too, the district has adopted a student records management system that helps with routine tasks such as maintaining class lists, taking attendance, recording grades and filling out report cards. The system, which will be accessed through workstations on each teacher’s desk, can also be used to track students’ academic progress— individually, by school or districtwide. The system is now being piloted in 12 schools and is slated to be running in every school by June 2001.

The school system also provides free e-mail and Internet access for each of the district’s 8,000 teachers and approximately 17,000 of its students. Staff accounts are unrestricted; student accounts, subject to parent approval and adherence to the district’s acceptable-use policy, allow filtered access to the Internet. Finally, the district’s strategic plan for technology—the blueprint that ties these and other initiatives together—calls for spending $275 million by January 2002. Nearly one-third of the money—much of it to be spent over the next 12 months— will go to construct a wide-area network connecting each of the district’s 156 buildings with fiber-optic communication lines capable of delivering data, voice and video, as well as local-area networks connecting every office or classroom in each building. Ultimately, wiring in each of the district’s more than 5,000 classrooms will support nine networked computers, a printer, a television and a multimedia teacher workstation.

Getting computers on the desks of every teacher and one of every three students in MPS is the job of Bob Nelson, a low-key, affable ex-principal who in 1995 was named to head the district’s new Department of Technology, and whose efforts saw the strategic technology plan adopted one year later.

As early as 1968, as a junior high math teacher, Nelson was using symbolic programming language to “teach” an early Olivetti 101 computer to play games. He then taught his students the math behind the games, which enhanced their understanding of the computer.

In 1991, Nelson was named principal of Washington High School and four years later, chairman of the district’s new technology review committee. One of that committee’s early tasks was to prepare a strategic plan that would guide the district’s overall technology efforts. The first plan, commissioned from a national consulting firm at a cost of $400,000, was rejected for placing too much emphasis on the business applications of technology while ignoring its potential in the classroom.

“We paid a high price to learn what we learned,” says Nelson. Although that plan ultimately helped MPS officials with tasks such as revamping the district’s payroll system, it failed to take into account the impact of tools such as the Internet and interactive video on teaching and learning.

The job of reworking the plan fell to Nelson. Enlisting the help of the district’s business partners and tapping into research by the Benton Foundation and the North Central Regional Educational Laboratory, he and the other members of the technology review committee refocused the plan on instructional technology.

Nelson estimates that about 25 percent of the overall program outlined in the strategic plan is currently in place. “We’ve begun moving from the point where we’re just talking about technology to the point where we’re actually able to use it,” he said. The most visible evidence of progress can be found at the city’s 12 high schools, where this spring teacher workstations are being installed in every classroom and every classroom is being wired to the Internet.

Nelson anticipates that by December 1999 all 25 district middle schools will be part of the district’s wide-area network. Elementary schools will be brought on board over the next two years, at a rate of 50 per year.

A critical mass

Making the district’s vision for technology a systemwide reality will take more than a handful of believers and the support of the business community, though.

“You can go out and wire every building, put 12 computers in every classroom and a workstation on each teacher’s desk,” says Robert Schleck, principal at Burdick. “But the fact is, you can’t replicate people. And unless you have large numbers of principals and teachers embracing the idea of technology as a tool that will help improve teaching and learning, all the hardware in the world isn’t going to do any good.”

Nelson says he was encouraged by the fact that two years ago, when he asked schools to earmark 3 to 4 percent of their annual school budgets for technology, he met with no overt resistance. Today, the challenge is keeping pace with demand.

“People are excited about technology these days, but the longer you have to wait for your school to be wired, the more cynical you become, and the harder it is to sustain interest and support,” says Diane Neicheril, principal of Clarke Street Elementary School on Milwaukee’s North Side.

Neicheril and her staff have succeeded where others have failed. Ninety-eight percent of their students qualify for free- and reduced-price lunch. At the same time, the school’s reading scores surpass district averages.

But while there are roughly six computers in each classroom, which are connected to each other via the school’s local-area network, Clarke Street isn’t yet connected to the district’s wide-area network and doesn’t have Internet access. According to Neicheril, the school had originally been scheduled to be hooked up to the network last spring but will now have to wait until next fall.

Other principals—including several at the helm of a number of the district’s most successful schools—admit that technology isn’t their first priority. Tom Hanley, principal of Golda Meir School, a citywide specialty school for the gifted and talented, says he and his staff have chosen to use their discretionary funds to hire several extra teachers instead of investing heavily in technology.

“We’re not anti-computer, but we really think it’s important that kids at this age have a lot of interaction and feedback with people as well as experiences with their physical world,” Hanley says. As a result, the school has an industrial arts teacher on the staff who teaches woodworking to every pupil.

Catching on

Getting support from the district’s teachers will also give the district a better chance of replicating its technology success stories. According to Glenn Kleimann, with the Center for Teaching, Learning and Technology in Newton, Mass., school systems often underestimate the complexity involved in getting large numbers of teachers truly technology literate.

“You have to go beyond that first wave of teachers—the ones who are already interested,” he said. “It’s also important to realize that it’s one thing to teach them to turn the computer on, boot up, and use a word processor, and another thing entirely to change your classroom so that you’re truly integrating technology into the curriculum.”

At the same time, though, studies show that a core of between 15 percent and 20 percent of faculty and students needs to be comfortable with technology before there’s sufficient “critical mass” to change the way a school or district operates, says Robert Spielvogel, director of technology at the Education Development Center, a nonprofit research and development organization based in New York City. With percentages like those, technology “becomes the dominant force and rapidly changes the school culture,” says Spielvogel.

Early on, MPS decided to provide free Internet access and e-mail accounts to teachers, install teacher workstations in every school and adopt student management software—decisions that could help the district build that critical mass.

Mel Hynek, director of MPS’s division of school technology support, says such initiatives helped make teachers more comfortable with technology. “It’s like learning to use a microwave—you just have to do it,” Hynek says. “And we’re giving them opportunities to do it.”

Nelson is encouraged by the fact that in the last two years more than 8,000 of the district’s 10,000 teachers have completed 12-hour training courses covering the fundamentals of e-mail and Internet access, as well as district policies governing their use. Hynek also says that teacher surveys reveal that 75 percent of the district’s teachers are comfortable working with word-processing software, and another 40 percent are comfortable with spreadsheets. More advanced courses, he says, offer training on how to use those skills effectively with students

Teachers ‘overwhelmed’

Less optimistic is Cheryl Seabrook Ajirotutu, assistant professor of anthropology at the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee. “In Milwaukee, there are schools such as Hi-Mount, and then there are most of the others, where there is no real sense of how technology fits into the educational program,” says Ajirotutu. A cultural anthropologist, Ajirotutu worked with the consulting firm of Coopers and Lybrand to research how technology was being used in MPS during the 1995-96 school year. She is currently working with several city schools to set up a program that will establish e-mail links—and, eventually, collaborative projects—between MPS students and students in Cape Coast, Ghana.

“Teachers feel so overwhelmed,” says Ajirotutu. “Technology is perceived as an add-on, … something else you’re asking them to do.”

Paulette Copeland, president of the Milwaukee Teachers Education Association, also talks of the small number of classroom teachers who consider classroom technology a high priority.

“Most MPS teachers are not well enough acquainted with what technology has to offer to be clamoring for more computers in their classrooms,” says Copeland. “There are too many other things to be worried about, such as keeping children in school, reading, math and test after test after test.”

With teachers already staying late to prepare for classes, Copeland says, after-school or evening training sessions aren’t always popular. Only three of the 30 staff members at her school have taken advantage of the district’s offer of free e-mail because the required training classes are only offered before and after school, she says.

Still, Milwaukee officials are pinning their hopes for the next phase of the district’s teacher training initiative on its Replicable Schools Program, a “teachers teaching teachers” model of staff development. The model calls for 61 teachers at nine schools to develop classrooms where technology is integrated into the curriculum. The teachers, who receive ongoing training and support as well as the opportunity to network with each other, will be expected to open up their classrooms beginning this spring for observation by other teachers who have been targeted to become a second wave of trainers. The teachers will also use a computer template the district has designed to create a data base of effective lesson plans using technology that will be posted on the MPS Web site.

Ultimately, it’s this commitment to training, together with the district’s significant capital investment in technology, that could stand MPS in good stead. “The fact that they’re making a massive capital investment in equipment and training in order to incorporate technology into daily instruction, that’s a big plus,” Cuban says. “It seems they have a vision that says this is about learning, not about technology.”