Winning the race—at first glance

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Gage Park High School

photo by Jason Reblando

Gage Park High School

After a wave of publicity about the lack of equipment at Harper High last fall, the Englewood school received three carts equipped for wireless Internet access and 84 new laptops. The school also received 109 new desktop computers.

The new laptops and PCs augmented Harper’s existing computer labs, giving the school a student-to-computer ratio of 3-to-1, better than district and national averages. Harper also has the advantage of a full-time technology coordinator to provide tech support to students and staff.

On the surface, Harper appears to be winning the technology race, as do Chicago high schools as a whole: High schools surveyed by Catalyst Chicago had an average of just under four students per computer with Internet capability, comparable to the national average for schools overall. As of last spring, thanks to a project spearheaded by the district’s Office of Technology Services, all high schools have Ethernet connections to the Web.

High schools are also doing better with staff: A survey by the Consortium on Chicago School Research shows 62 percent of high schools had a full-time tech coordinator, compared to 53 percent of elementary schools.

In addition, a Catalyst analysis of high school course offerings for 2005-06 shows that all but a handful of high schools offered a course focused on teaching students the basics of computer technology. For instance, a required course for freshmen at Jones College Prep in the South Loop teaches students how to use popular software such as Microsoft Excel, as well as the basics of web design and creating an electronic portfolio (similar to a resume).

But high schools still face barriers—such as logistics, inequity in resources, and lack of training—to successful use of technology to enhance learning.

Shunted into a corner

Despite the overall numbers, equipment access varies widely. For instance, Dyett Academy in Washington Park has almost six students per computer, while Brooks College Prep in Roseland has three students per computer. A few schools, such as Lindblom Math and Science Academy in Englewood and World Language Academy in Little Village, have fewer than one student per computer.

Access can be a problem even with adequate resources. Last year, one of Harper’s two computer labs was exclusively dedicated to ACT and Prairie State test preparation. That hampered teachers’ efforts to use technology in core courses, says Gary Latman, who oversees technology. “If teachers can’t get into the lab, they get very frustrated.”

The machines in Harper’s classrooms aren’t much help, Latman adds, in part due to mechanical problems. “We do not even have four working computers in every classroom,” he says.

Teachers may have to wait up to 10 weeks to make use of the new laptops in class, Latman estimates. He was asked to oversee a summer program, which kept him from spending time loading software and otherwise preparing the new equipment.

Budget cuts have forced some high school tech coordinators back into the classroom, at least part time. “Those of us who had freed positions, meaning you don’t teach, are now getting classes,” says Linda Newsome, technology coordinator at Jones College Prep, who expects to be back in the classroom this fall.

Because high schools are departmentalized, the use of technology often gets shunted into a career-focused corner rather than incorporated into core courses.

“Everything is in its own realm in a high school,” observes Don York, co-director of the Chicago Public Schools-University of Chicago Internet Project, known as CUIP. “The structure isn’t set up to integrate it.” Through the project, the university partners with schools to provide resources, curricula and coaching on technology integration.

Core classes generally take a back seat to career-oriented courses when it comes to scheduling computer lab time, says York. “There’s often [only] one sign-up lab. It’s difficult,” he says.

‘You need synergy’

While most high schools surveyed said half or more of teachers had training in using technology, Latman and others say more high-quality training is needed to get the full benefit in the classroom.

Many teachers, who may have only a handful of machines, don’t know how to use them to enhance learning in a classroom with 28 or more students. “Too many teachers use computers as candy, as the reward for doing seatwork and handouts,” Latman says.

Bill Gerstein, principal of the School of Entrepreneurship on the former South Shore High School campus, says area instructional officers need to be involved if teachers and principals are to make technology a priority.

Gerstein, who believes schools need two full-time staffers to provide tech support and integration, suggests area coaches should be helping teachers learn to use technology to better engage students.

Gerstein observes that there is no connection between the Office of Technology Services and the offices that work on curricula. “You need synergy between those departments,” he says.

One example of how technology can engage students took place at Gage Park High this summer. Students taking a summer course in U.S. History begged the janitor to let them into the building hours ahead of schedule—because they loved the course’s online format.

Senior Cleveland Seamon accessed the online course at home and on the weekends, too. By the third week of the seven-week session, he was already working on his final exam. “I prefer this class over a regular class any day,” he says. “I see it as a challenge.”

All but three of the 30 students passed the course. Thirteen earned A’s. “I would never have 13 A’s in a class. Half of that, maybe,” says social studies teacher Jonathan Keith, who co-taught the course with technology teacher Reza Al-Rifai.

The class was a radical and welcome change from regular classroom teaching, Keith adds. Links to maps and audio enhanced the text readings, and students learned to use PowerPoint to create presentations for exams.

“The kids come in more enthused,” Keith raves. “I love that they work at their own pace. Kids aren’t being left behind.”

Principal Martin McGreal is eager to continue using online learning. (At Catalyst press time, McGreal was dismissed by central office.) “I don’t want this to be an extra,” he says. “This is the beginning of something pretty big.”

Senior Editor Elizabeth Duffrin contributed to this report