Fenger, Chicago Ag, Shields out front

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For all the obstacles it faces, Chicago does have schools that are making exemplary use of technology. At Fenger Academy High School in Roseland, for example, students use computers with an innovative science curriculum that emphasizes the environment.

Four years ago, the school started teaching environmental science and was looking for a way to bring more technology into its classes, says biology teacher Karen Baker. To suit its own special needs, the school adapted an interactive science activities program known as CoVis, which had been developed by Northwestern University.

As a result, earth science students use computers to do problem-solving activities and construct models that simulate environmental hazards and issues.

This year, students studied overpopulation in several cities around the world. Students not only had to define the problem and describe its affects on the environment; they also had to look for causes, such as housing characteristics and religion, on the Internet.

The earth science software contains prompts that ask students to pose their own questions: How much algae in water is necessary to harm fish? Is the amount the same for all species of fish? What ingredients in local pollution cause algae growth?

Reading the questions and responding to them are valuable activities for many of the school’s 762 students, who generally are weak in reading and writing, says Baker. Only 10.1 percent of the freshmen and juniors who took the Tests of Achievement and Proficiency (TAP) last year scored at national norms in reading.

The school has approximately 150 computers, which are dispersed among a science/language arts lab, three vocational labs and a mini-lab. Internet access in the science/language arts lab was made possible through the CoVis program, which supplied the funds to install a T1 line to the school.

The Chicago High School for Agricultural Sciences in Mount Greenwood also has had success with technology. With 188 computers for 563 students, the Chicago Ag school has one computer for every three students. Each class has about three computers, and the school has two large computer learning labs.

Students in business and finance classes use computers to participate in stock market games that require them to use the Internet to research stock prices. Senior projects have become elaborate productions, complete with slide shows and PowerPoint demonstrations. All freshmen are required to take computer classes that teach basic computer skills, such as keyboarding, doing research on the Internet, and using word-processing and spreadsheet programs. Students also learn how to number pages, set margins and tabs, and use files and folders so that they can store, retrieve and use the information they uncover.

In the fall of 1998, this school appeared light-years ahead of many older schools in Chicago, due in part to a recent 150,000-square-foot expansion that paved the way for Internet access. While the addition made a big difference, Principal Barbara Valerious and the school’s local school council still struggle to finance equipment and maintenance.

To underwrite some of those costs, the Ag school rented its gym to the State of Illinois for the Illinois teachers certification tests last summer. That arrangement yielded approximately $1,500. Occasionally, too, the Ag school rents a classroom, gymnasium or a multipurpose room to a local Catholic grade school. While that generates only about $25 per rental, Valerious says, “Every little bit helps.”

The school’s local school council has been supportive of training efforts as well, assigning funds to pay for substitutes so that teachers can obtain training during school hours. The school also has asked school sponsors and members of the business community to contribute computers for teachers’ personal use; it figures that if teachers become acquainted with computers at home, they’ll use them more readily in the classroom.

At the elementary school level, Shields Elementary School in Brighton Park is making gains. Many classes use small-group workstations that include computers and other resources. Working at these stations, students read books and then report what they have learned to other class members.

Software selection has been key to the school’s efforts. Rita Schuble, the school’s technology coordinator, and Rita Gardner, its principal, say they and others at the school take special pains to buy software that will serve specific curriculum needs rather than programs oriented toward drill and practice or games.

They also have teachers test the software before purchasing it, encouraging them to look beyond the most heavily advertised popular brands.

Shields has made impressive gains in student achievement. Between 1990 and 1998, the percentage of students scoring at or above national norms on the Iowa Tests of Basic Skills rose from 20.2 percent to 33.8 percent in reading and from 27.5 percent to 40 percent in math.

In the same period, the school’s enrollment increased from 955 to 1,649, and the percentage of students from low-income households rose from 60.5 percent to 94.5 percent. The percentage of students with limited English proficiency also rose, from 21.4 percent to 36.7 percent.

Shields has expanded its teaching staff to accommodate increasing enrollment, but even so, its classes remain large, with some having as many as 42 students. Rather than hire more teachers to reduce class size, though, the principal, local school council and parents have opted to invest further in technology.