Tech Masters

Tech Masters

Verteran teachers are as technology-wise in this district as new teachers, and even students. An ongoing staff development program is why.

Veteran teachers are as technology-wise in this district as new teachers, and even students. An ongoing staff development program is why

Administrators at Golf District 67 compare themselves to The Little Engine That Could, but the comparison doesn't quite work.

Yes, the public school district is small and spirited, but the little blue engine in the book never considered climbing the mountain until it was asked. Golf, on the other hand, does not wait for invitations.

When Third International Mathematics and Science Study results first stunned the country in 1995, Golf 67 joined a group of about eight districts (it is now around 17) called First in the World Consortium to take the TIMSS again independently of the country. The group's scores are among the top in the world.

"We were really confident of our math program," says Linda Marks, superintendent since 1992. "We are a progressive district. We always have been. We have a progressive board."

Being small never seems to factor into the district's big plans, including this past year when it competed to be one of the National School Board Association's 2002 Technology and Learning Salute Districts.

Dawn Marks, no relation to the superintendent but a key technology program administrator, says she has never noticed a small district winning this award. She thought it would impede its chance.

Wrong. The NSBA choose it along with two others based on what it finds to be exemplary technology practices for improving teaching and learning environments.

"Golf School District has done several incredible things in the training of its educators," says Anne Flynn, NSBA's executive director.

One of those "things" is the Golf Academy, a four-year-old and three-year-long technology-training program for the district's 47 or so teachers.

Tee Off with Technology

The academy is simply a classroom located in one of the school buildings, with 12 computers and Dawn Marks as the teacher. She trains eight new staff members who sign up for classes a year, as well as teaches two higher-level classes. She meets with each level once a week, in after-school classes from 3:30 to 5 p.m.

Teachers must commit to the entire three years of training, which consists of 36 hours annually. They aren't paid for participating, but they do receive a computer and other nifty gifts like digital cameras.

Teachers do 12 of the 36 hours in an intensive two-week summer program. Generally, in the first year, they learn basics such as word processing, presentation and database software.

Second-year students focus on using their knowledge to organize and communicate information with parents and community members. Areas covered include how to use publishing software and even how to design their own Web pages. They are introduced to digital cameras, scanners, Internet research and PowerPoint.

Third-year students concentrate more on applying their new skills to their classrooms and designing new instructional units. Due to teacher request, many of these units are shared on the district's own Web site.

Morton Grove is not one of the fantastically wealthy Chicago suburbs. The superintendent notes it is solidly middle class, even upper-middle class, but money is a consideration. The total technology budget for equipment, supplies and services is $121,400 for this school year. Included in this figure is the academy, budgeted at $25,000 (not including the academy teacher's salary).

Start-up costs were marginal, says Superintendent Marks. It included the 12 computers needed for the classroom, and the time spent on it by Dawn Marks, who developed the program with teacher Elise Gould.

Wearing her grant-writer hat, Dawn Marks has also been able to hook a few competitive grants, including ones from Museum in the Classroom and Learn and Serve, to hold down costs. Linda Marks insists the academy is not expensive and is replicable for larger districts. In fact, she strongly recommends the model because it has been so effective.

She estimates that about 97 percent of the staff have been at least through year one of the academy. Eight teachers in a class seem like a small number, but with a staff of just 47, it has not taken long to make an impact. The district has already had one class of teachers graduate-and as a testament to the enthusiasm the academy has engendered, about half of them have elected to stay on, creating a fourth year. These teachers are designing and running technology classes for parents and the community.

The academy includes a strong mentoring component as well as project requirements. Second and third year teachers are expected to spend 10 hours, beyond the 36 hours of training, mentoring other teachers. The mentoring is important because academy students are expected to create and try out actual lesson plans and put up and maintain Web sites. The district has ensured that through mentoring, as well as the hiring of one technician, the teachers get the help they need.

Linda Marks is realistic about how the technology-rich lessons often work out, with glitches and shutdowns frustrating even the most dedicated teachers. "You cannot ask a teacher to participate in something that has a good chance of not working," unless you provide them with support, she says.

Another important ingredient to the district's technology plan is the Engaged Learning Program. Part of Dawn Marks' job is to work with teachers on seamlessly blending technology into the curriculum. Initially, she was expected to spend a year per grade level working with the appropriate staff. "In the three years I have been doing this, that has not happened. It takes more than one year per grade level," Marks says.

Much is accomplished in a year, but she notes that she needs to follow up in ensuing years to help teachers with inevitable revisions to the revisions. It turns out, she says, to be an evolutionary process.

Impressive Strides

Both Dawn Marks and Linda Marks say the most obvious place to see the results of their work is in the classroom. Many different instructional units are now employing technology. "The teachers are absolutely doing knock-out jobs," says Dawn Marks.

Parents are also seeing changes because many teachers now have Web sites, and this February, the middle school launched a service where parents can access grade-books online. Middle school parents, using passwords, can view the information through Win School, a Chancery Student Management Systems product.

Linda Marks has watched as teachers of 20 years become as deft with technology as a brand new teacher-as deft with it as a student. "It levels the playing field," she says. This is quite a change from when she arrived 11 years ago. "Technology consisted of computers in places," she says. And they weren't being used either. She says the district went through a period of one-shot technology training sessions, but found the computers were still lonely.

"Teachers did not know how to do it," she says. "We need to teach our teachers, and then we will have technology permeating everything we do."

Linda Marks says her philosophy, at least on staff development, is that if it is not ongoing and systemic, "it is useless. It is just an arrow in the wind that may hit or not."

Amy D'Orio, wdorio@earthlink.net, is a contributing editor.


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