Cheers, shrieks and kids jumping up and down greeted the rollout of laptops for all at Central Valley High School. But beyond the excitement of teens having their own technology in hand, educators say the shift from binders to binary heralds a change in instructional level, the incentive of self-propelled learning and a more collegiate campus.
Tech cannot replace great instruction, but it is another tool in the teacher toolbox, said Principal Dan Pangrazio.
“That’s where we’re seeing technology gives us leverage,” he said. “The technology is not there for itself. What makes it powerful is to make us ever better at what we do.”
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“The main difference I see is the students are reaching a higher level of thinking,” said Central Valley English teacher Kristen Ghimenti. Things students tripped over, like definitions to unfamiliar words, can be blitzed past with an online dictionary or with a page of notes she shares with the class. No more waiting while kids dig through ripping backpacks. No more grading stacks of battered, spiral-bound notebooks full of illegible scrawl.
Ghimenti is a teacher tech mentor at her school, part of a broader push to help teachers make best use of what otherwise could be just very expensive binder paper.
In Ghimenti’s class, having laptops has made a substantive difference.
Students can basically have the whole world at the fingertips now.
Brian Wise, teacher at Central Valley High in Ceres
“There’s an efficiency to them, in how they organize their work. Then they can go to taking on those harder questions,” Ghimenti said. As the teens tackle those tougher questions, she can watch drafts of writing projects progress online. The technology lets her spot the struggling and the straggling. “Immediate feedback,” she said.
For science teacher Brian Wise, the change has meant access to sites rich with video and photographic images for his students. “It’s a natural match (with sciences). Students can basically have the whole world at the fingertips now,” Wise said.
Students said they prefer doing work online. “It’s a lot faster. Most people can type faster than writing,” said Ivan Velasquez, a freshman in Wise’s advanced biology class.
The downside, however, is the need for a Wi-Fi connection to do research, he said.
While the plan is that all homework can be done offline, the reality is that research and working together on group projects happens online.
Modesto has the Comcast connection, where Internet is available to low-income students for about $10 a month. In other cities and rural areas, schools are looking at cellular providers as a possibility for home connections.
In Merced, stickers welcome students at stores and restaurants with open Wi-Fi. A link on the school website helps students find them.
There’s a cultural difference on campus. It’s definitely an academic, college-going atmosphere. Anthony Johnson,
principal of El Capitan High in Merced
The community connection came with the fall 2013 opening of El Capitan High School north of town. From day one, every high school student had a laptop, making it one of the technology pioneers.
The school was designed from the start with technology in mind. A range of chairs and tables was designed with classroom flexibility in mind. The library has a few hundred paper books but about 10,000 books available online, said library media tech Andrew Pangolina.
“It really helps with the wear and tear,” he quipped, and reference books are always up to date.
“We were on the leading edge,” recalled Principal Anthony Johnson. “It felt like we were a tourist attraction that first year,” he said, with the school hosting hundreds of educators wanting to see how it worked.
What they saw was a school without lockers, many students without even backpacks. What they would notice now are teens chatting as they pass to their next classes, but without the typical yelling or running.
“There’s a cultural difference on campus. It’s definitely an academic, college-going atmosphere,” Johnson said.
Now in its third year at El Capitan, the whiz-bang wahoo of having laptops has waned. “It just becomes school,” Johnson said. Teens agreed with that. Asking them what was different about studying with a laptop just brought blank looks.
But the adults see major differences, most hinging on better communication. “I got 40 emails last night saying, ‘I have no idea how to do this homework,’ ” said El Capitan math teacher Megan Besecker.
She was planning to start a new chapter but switched gears and revisited the problem area. “Being able to have that feedback, I can change my lesson on the spot,” she said.
Johnson said he gets emails from students on a regular basis, emails that use good grammar and ask intelligent questions.
“They’re still kids. You don’t change that. But when you treat them like adults, that’s how they act,” said Anthony Thomas, assistant manager of technology for the district.
Discipline statistics mirror that shift, with expulsions and serious offenses in El Capitan’s second year down by roughly two-thirds compared to its first. Truancy levels dropping by a quarter in 2014-15, even while the school added 400 students.
A calmer, more collegial atmosphere has followed the rollout across the district, Thomas said. “We see the same thing at the other campuses.”
Buhach, Golden Valley and Livingston high schools went One to Web, as the district calls its digital initiative, in 2014-15. This year, Merced and Atwater high schools made it a clean sweep for the 10,100-student district.
Ceres Unified checked out 13,700 computers to kids this year, tablets to kindergarteners and first-graders, Chromebooks to second grade and older. Manteca Unified took the digital plunge last year with Microsoft devises.
Modesto City Schools piloted Chromebooks for all at Davis High in 2014-15, its Digital Davis initiative. The district is moving toward laptops for all its nearly 15,000 high school students, possibly as soon as 2016-17, said Associate Superintendent Ginger Johnson. Junior high and elementary students, another 15,000, will follow a year or two later.
But the move to digital takes more than buying laptops by the crate. At the start of last school year, 30 laptops – one class – booting up at once in a Ceres school could slow down Internet speed across the entire district. Millions of dollars in infrastructure upgrades, most of it paid for with federal dollars through the e-rate program for schools, ushered Ceres Unified into the digital age.
The Merced high school district spent $5 million, 88 percent of which was paid through the federal e-rate program. Chromebooks, the model chosen by students and staff members each year at a vendors fair of devices, have cost another $4.4 million, Thomas said.
More broadband speed, more Wi-Fi hubs, more security, more teacher training, more technicians, even more plugs for kids to charge their devices, become part of the shift to digital that every school has to navigate.
But administrators say it has to happen. Employers and colleges expect high school graduates to have those skills.
“I really think the question for everyone isn’t ‘if’, it’s ‘when,’ ” Pangrazio said.