Gazette opinion: Let’s close school technology gap

2012-11-18T00:10:00Z Gazette opinion: Let’s close school technology gap The Billings Gazette
November 18, 2012 12:10 am

On a bright November morning, sunshine streamed into Deanna O’Neil’s fourth-grade classroom at Washington Elementary. Every student was working independently, quietly studying math on a Mac Book Pro laptop with a headset.

O’Neil and her students like the Mac lab, a gift from CenturyLink. These laptops are easy to use, work great and give the teacher a wide array of lesson choices that engage her students. Unfortunately, the school has only one laptop lab. The 228 students in kindergarten through fifth grade share 25 laptops. Each classroom gets to use the lab once a week. The school has some other student computers, all more than 10 years old. These outdated devices usually don’t work and lack teaching features available on current technology.

Down the hall, Rhonda King’s 22 first-graders are learning reading and math skills with the help of iPads. The two iPads were provided by the Foundation for Billings Public Schools. King wrote a grant proposal to obtain the iPads, which her entire class shares.

King is part of Billings Public Schools technology training program. This professional learning group works to increase members’ knowledge about using technology in the classroom, and then members share that knowledge with their colleagues.

The apps for iPad lessons are cheap, King said.

“I can find an app for any lesson I want to do.”

King’s classroom also is equipped with a Mimio pad, which she connects to her laptop for interactive lessons. The lessons are projected on a screen that the students can touch and change to figure out answers.

“It’s so important for them to use those tools because most don’t have them at home,” King said of her students.

Seventy-nine percent of Washington students are from lower-income families, according to Principal Karen Ziegler. Twenty-three students are homeless, living in shelters or other temporary housing.

If Ziegler wrote a wish list for technology, the first item would be training for teachers. The educators have to know how to use these tools to provide the full benefit to students.

No. 2 would be more laptops. Ideally, every student would have a laptop or iPad.

Her third wish would be computers for parents to use regularly, along with parent training. Many Washington parents don’t have access to computers or the Internet.

In addition to teaching children language and algebra, school computer lessons teach them how to use the Internet, to stay safe, to recognize reliable and unreliable sources of information and to discern what is credible, Ziegler said.

The Foundation for Billings Public Schools has launched a 21st Century Classroom project that will start to fulfill tech learning wishes. The goal is to boost parental, business and community involvement in schools, inspire educators and improve children’s education.

The first-phase fundraising goal is $300,000, which would create one 21st Century Classroom in each of Billings’ 30 public schools.

“The 21st Century Classroom will prepare students to be productive in the workplace of tomorrow, that is, your workplace,” said Eric Nord, volunteer president of the foundation board. Nord spoke about the project last week at the annual Educator for a Day luncheon. His audience included 113 guests who had spent the morning visiting local schools.

Technology is an important teaching tool that Billings should provide to its students. But our public elementary and middle schools have little money for purchasing technology. Voters approved a high school technology levy a few years ago, but rejected technology support for younger students.

Most technology in our elementary and middle schools is the result of PTA fundraising or private grants. While most workers use technology daily on the job, most Billings students don’t use computers daily at school.

Schools need to catch up with students’ world. The foundation’s 21st Century Classroom project is a step in the right direction. We encourage community members to support the project and to consider volunteering in the schools. To find out how to give time or money, check the box above.

Copyright 2014 The Billings Gazette. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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