Where blackboards turn white and the students get microphones

Nantucket Elementary in Crofton opens door this week on the new techno-classroom

August 24, 2008|By Susan Gvozdas | Susan Gvozdas,Special to The Sun

Those curious about what cutting-edge education looks like should take a look at Nantucket Elementary School in Crofton.

The $24.6 million school, which opens Wednesday, is one of the most technologically advanced in Anne Arundel County.

Every teacher will have a wearable microphone that broadcasts his or her voice around the classroom. Students will be able to ask questions, talk-show style, with a portable microphone.

Each classroom is outfitted with an interactive whiteboard, a modern-day overhead projector that displays images from the teacher's computer on a large touch screen. Teachers can activate the board by touching it with an electronic pen and access websites, open up lesson plans and write over images. Mobile pads will let them control the screen from anywhere in the room.

The beyond-the-chalkboard approach already is in use in Europe, said Diana Strohecker, principal of Nantucket Elementary. Strohecker spent two months as a Fulbright scholar in southern England and visited 35 schools. All had whiteboards.

Although developing countries still do well with books and blackboards, students in the more affluent, high-tech West are easily bored in class, Strohecker said.

"We are at a time in history where if you don't have an iPod in your pocket, you have a cell phone," Strohecker said. "A 10-year-old textbook is not cutting it."

Anne Arundel County's public schools are trying to make sure every new building has the latest technology, said Bob Mosier, a system spokesman. So far, few are as advanced as Nantucket. Seven Oaks Elementary in Odenton, built three years ago, has only a few portable whiteboards.

The technology also seems to have attracted parents who had their children home-schooled or in private school, Strohecker said. At least 100 of the 690 students at Nantucket fit those two categories, she said. Parents are telling Strohecker that the cost of private school is beginning to pinch, she said.

"I think it's the economic times," Strohecker said. "Parents are looking at tuition."

Most of the students at the 80,000-square-foot Nantucket Elementary, however, are coming from overcrowded Crofton and Four Seasons elementary schools. It can accommodate up to 730 students.

Nantucket Elementary will open two days later than most of the county's other elementary schools, because of the extra training needed with the new technology, Strohecker said.

Although the technology was expensive, the school realized savings in other areas: Strohecker didn't have to buy pull-down maps for each classroom, transparencies for overhead projectors or DVDs.

The technology ensures that students are paying attention every step of the way, Strohecker said. The audio system projects a teacher's voice - sparing them from straining to be heard - and drowns out noise from the hallway. Small, calculator-like devices, called Senteos, allow students to punch in multiple-choice answers to a question. Teachers can see immediately whether students are picking up the material. Students also can see how many of their classmates picked A, B or C.

"Then that opens up discussion," Strohecker said.

Strohecker has instructed all of her teachers to have students answer a question via Senteo every 15 minutes.

The technology makes teachers efficient in other ways. Teachers don't have to go home and cut out shapes from construction paper to illustrate fractions or other ideas. They simply drag and drop 3-D images from electronic files and display them on the whiteboard.

Instead of going to the media center, teachers have access to a video library with 40,000 clips in their own classroom. They can access it in minutes and move their lessons along quickly. Kate Bieryla, a third-grade teacher, found a lesson on the poet Robert Frost that includes footage of him reading his poems aloud.

"It's just right there for them," she said.

Parents are excited about their children having the latest equipment. The technology helps teachers reach students who are more visual learners, said Gail Burcky, president of the Nantucket Parent Teacher Association. Her son James, a transfer from Four Seasons, will enter the third grade at Nantucket this week.

"I think it will help more students because not everyone learns the same way," said Burcky, former PTA president at Four Seasons.

There is some concern among parents about how their children will fare once they graduate from Nantucket and attend schools that aren't as technologically advanced, Burcky said. Mosier said the school system is doing whatever it can to retrofit schools with new technology. Older schools are harder to rewire, he said.

Strohecker, former principal of Millersville Elementary, introduced whiteboard technology there. She said she is thrilled at what she was able to bring to Nantucket students.

"It's an unbelievable opportunity," Strohecker said.

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