The morning I drive into West Liberty on Highway 460, my car curves with the snaky road. The mountains, shrouded in slate-blue fog, look like postcard pictures. Population 3,000, West Liberty is a typical small Kentucky town, steeped in tradition and folk heritage, but plagued by the economic difficulties of many eastern mountain towns.
My destination is Well’s Hill. Passing the hospital and a row of houses, I arrive at a small, unassuming brick building, West Liberty Elementary School. For the last three years, this small school of 400 students has ranked as one of the nation’s Top 100 schools wired for technology by Family PC, a magazine that tracks trends in technology.
There are tales of third-graders giving PowerPoint presentations and kindergartners creating storybooks by importing digital images. I am here to find out if these tales of technological wizardry are true.
I meet with Sylvia Carter, technology coordinator for West Liberty Elementary, and Robin Stegall, a science teacher. We meet in one of the elementary’s two computer labs. The room is crammed with monitors and keyboards, a SmartBoard stands in the corner, and on the opposite wall hangs a quilt, a folksy, almost homey touch to the whizzing digital environment of the tech lab.
Both women are anxious to talk about their school’s technology performance.
“Technology is not a separate subject. It’s a tool to enhance everything we do,” says Carter, a 17-year teaching veteran. In 1995, Carter became the school’s technology coordinator. Carter’s goal became getting technology into the hands of her students.
“If the students knew the technology first, it would force the teachers to learn, so teaching students became our goal.” Carter started with 11 students who applied for the Student Technology Leadership Program (STLP), a tech-focused extracurricular group that met before and after school to learn animation, Web page building, and digital portfolio creation.
“I had teachers who would come to me and want to learn PowerPoint. I didn’t have time to teach them, but I had students who were just great at that program.”
Nicknamed the Tech-Sperts, these students taught teachers and tech workshops, created a Help Desk for teachers, and maintained all the computer labs. They also worked with the public, building Web pages for area businesses and providing professional development seminars for student teachers at Morehead State University.
Teachers at West Liberty Elementary quickly jumped on board.
As part of an economics unit, Robin Stegall’s fifth-grade classes created companies that designed digital products. Classes formed corporations that made all business decisions concerning design, marketing, and sales within a $100 budget. Students collaborated with the art teacher, using Windows Paint to create designs for Christmas cards and refrigerator magnets. After importing images into PrintShop Deluxe software, the companies used class time for assembly line construction of their product. Students sold their product at a local Christmas festival and kept track of their profit and expenses by using Excel spreadsheets. In the end, all classes showed a profit.
Stegall attests to the fact that technology has changed the way she teaches.
“In the past while teaching a rain forest unit, I would dig out envelopes of pictures and posters, and if I was lucky I’d find some charts with current information. Now I just log online and the kids can see what is happening from a live camera within the rain forest. Students compile research using e-mail information from experts in the field. I even had some kids track hurricanes during a weather unit last year,” says Stegall.
In the eye of this tech storm is the man who Carter and Stegall hold responsible for West Liberty Elementary’s tech explosion, Mike Wagers. Former principal Wagers came to the office in 1995, and told his teaching staff paper memos were a thing of the past. No more paper memos, no more paper attendance sheets, no more paper communication, period. Everyone, including teachers, janitors, cooks, and students, was given an e-mail account and was expected to know how to use it.
“From an administrative standpoint, technology was the best investment for our students and our school. Kentucky Educational Technology System (KETS) awarded money to schools based on need for computers, printers, and other technology. Schools were sometimes able to match that money, but in the beginning, we even used our snack money to buy computers. I knew that we were doing the right thing,” says Wagers.
Forty percent of West Liberty Elementary parents have e-mail and many teachers contact parents via that medium. Wagers stressed that technology does not replace connections and relationships, such as phone calls and parent/teacher conferences that have been the mainstay of education for centuries. Instead, technology enhances all those aspects of communication so parents are receiving day-to-day reports of their child’s progress instead of only six progress reports a year.
Wagers, Stegall, and Carter all agree that one of the driving forces for tech education is its potential for employment. Many eastern Kentucky towns lack the adequate infrastructure and roads to attract industry. With no jobs moving in and people moving out to gain employment, many towns feel geographically hampered. West Liberty native and State Representative John Will Stacy commented on the need for technology education.
“The future is in technology knowledge and information technologies. Those types of companies can be operated as easily from these mountains as they can out of Silicon Valley,” says Stacy. Jobs in the new digital economy will be based on a knowledge of electronic systems, a knowledge that the students of West Liberty Elementary will have squarely under their belts.
Some of the technology used in the classroom includes the SmartBoard, an interactive lighted board that students can write on and turn into print text on a computer screen. Students also have access to infrared wireless receivers for keyboard word processing.
Besides Internet access, students enjoy multiple software applications such as Inspiration, Microsoft Encarta, Graph Club, Reader Rabbit, and other learning center software. Classrooms can create hyperstudio presentations and digital portfolios as well as Web pages where homework assignments and research links can be posted.
“I create a group distribution list and then send an assignment to all students. They have access to the assignment and the Web links that can assist in researching that assignment,” says Stegall.
It seems that West Liberty Elementary is charging into the Digital Age with fiber optics blazing, but what about that quilt? Doesn’t that seem a little out of place in such a high-tech environment?
“Second-grade teacher Linda Nickell was completing a unit on Appalachian heritage and culture and decided to incorporate technology,” says Carter. Students created digital art that represented some aspect of Appalachian culture. Using transfer paper, students ironed the image onto muslin. Community quilters came to the elementary school to teach the students how to quilt and piece the blocks. Each child quilted his or her block and the class, with assistance from the quilting grannies, created the quilt, a living intersection of heritage and technology.
OTHER WIRED SCHOOLS
Family PC also recognizes Rosa Parks Elementary in Lexington and Andre Lucas Elementary in Fort Campbell as Top 100 wired schools. Nationally, schools were ranked according to their commitment to innovative technology use within their school system and district. All three Kentucky schools ranked high in four key areas: teacher training, technology support, district and administrative support, and improved communication with parents.
“The administrative support feeds all our other goals of increased communication with parents and increased teacher training,” says Bonnie Hall, student technology coordinator at Rosa Parks Elementary. Operating with two computer labs, Rosa Parks Elementary offers Internet access in every classroom as well as Inspiration and PowerPoint.
Andre Lucas Elementary, with an enrollment of 530 students, is also completely integrated with computer labs and extensive teacher training for technology. Educational technologist Bobbie Knight offers technology workshops for teachers before school every Monday and Tuesday morning, including instruction on E-class, a grade book program for third-, fourth-, and fifth-grade teachers. Knight also provides TechNote updates for teachers to keep them abreast of new software acquisitions and other technology outlets.
“Technology has to be a priority before it becomes integrated within the curriculum. When the teachers are excited about it, training and support are crucial,” says Dr. Brenda Hunter, principal at Andre Lucas Elementary.
Andre Lucas also offers Technology Night, a family night held in the media center that helps to inform parents of the technology activities within the school. Four Technology Nights are scheduled for this academic year.