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County to begin three-school pilot program to test technology in classrooms

The Sylva Herald & Ruralite of Sylva, North Carolina

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Artists sweep brushes across canvas to create paintings. Carpenters pound nails with hammers and build houses. Like brushes and hammers, computers are tools; Jackson County Schools Technology Director David Proffitt believes educators who use them thoughtfully find computers helpful.

Tools, however, have limits.

"They don't create miracles. Teachers create miracles," Proffitt said.

Parents had better hope this is true, that technology is secondary to the quality of education their children receive. Because when it comes to pairing computers with students and teachers, Jackson County Schools is near the bottom of the state, tied for third-worst with Hickory City Schools: 113th out of 115 public school systems. There are 2.75 students per computer in Jackson County; the state average is 1.81. The state ideal is one-to-one: one computer for each child.

Proffitt wants students and teachers to enjoy up-to-date technology. He plans on stumping for the money required and decrying the school system's dismal ranking. But, simply parking gizmos on classroom desks doesn't fuel student achievement, he said.

"We don't want teachers to look at. these devices as separate from the teaching process," he said. "We want them to be a natural part of the classroom."

Proffitt designed a pilot program, starting Feb. 1, that allows Jackson County Schools to test how best to marry technology and education. It's a tightly controlled study with three propositions: What are the instructional needs - do the devices enhance or interfere in the classroom? What technical issues must be resolved? How many employees will be needed to provide support if thousands of devices are distributed to the county's students and teachers?

Three classrooms in three schools are involved: Math I, Smoky Mountain High School; Biology, Blue Ridge School; and eighth-grade math, Smokey Mountain Elementary School. Earlier this month, school board members agreed to equip these classrooms with $76,816.77 worth of convertible tablets, do-every-thing devices that include keyboards and touch-screen monitors.

Technology roll-outs elsewhere have proven disastrous, even comical. In Los Angeles, a $1 billion plan to arm 650,000 students with iPads went awry this school year when about 300 tech-savvy teens bypassed security protocols to access social networking and other blocked websites. Policies to guide student use need development, and the fish-bowl sized study in Jackson County provides a measure of control while administrators shape those rules.

"We've really tried to do this the right way," said Proffitt, who notes the pilot program grew out of extensive planning that included listening to teachers and studying how other school systems use computers.

North Carolina in 2008 started its one-to-one Learning Technology Initiative to provide a planning framework for school systems wanting to mirror its "ideal" ratio. Some school systems have surpassed the state's goal.

The top-ranked school system is composed of the nine schools for the deaf and blind, with .29 students per computer. Lee County is next with .39 students. Watauga County follows at .69. Regionally, Swain County leads the far-western counties with 1.42 students per computer, placing it 47th overall in the state.

Critics of one-to-one initiatives charge this "ideal" ratio has more to do with computer companies marketing equipment than teachers achieving improvement in classrooms.

"Some of the worst-performing school districts have one-to-one initiatives in place," Proffitt said.

Lee County, second-best in the state when measured by computer ratio, had just 40.2 percent of students deemed proficient on 2012-2013 standardized tests. The state average was 44.7 percent. Lee County spent $6 million over four years buying computer devices for students in grades three through 12. Last week, The Fayetteville Observer re-.ported some commissioners there are questioning the county's return on its investment.

Swain County has lots of computers but ranks last among the eight westernmost counties on standardized tests, with 39.7 percent proficient in 2012-2013. (Jackson County scored 42.4 percent.) Swain's high school students were given laptops during their freshman year; in August, officials will use Golden Leaf Foundation money to also give devices to students in grades four through eight.

Karen Cook, director of technology for Swain County Schools and a product of that school system, said she believes students using laptops are more engaged in learning. Additionally, "it levels the playing field," she said.

"They're not just - you know the stereotype - little mountain kids isolated in the Appalachians," Cook said. "The world is open to them when they have a digital device."

Many students in economically distressed Swain County wouldn't have home access to computers without the school-provided equipment, Cook said. And, though test scores might not show improvement, Swain reduced its dropout rate by half. Laptops in students' hands "may have a small part to do with that," Cook said.

Watauga County shines on both computer-ratio comparisons and tangible test-score results: Number three in the state for computers, and 55.7 percent proficient on standardized tests in 2012-2013. Watauga County in the spring of 2010 provided laptops to the entire student body and faculty; no roll-out problems publicly surfaced.

The sample is tiny, but the corollary seems to be this: School systems such as Watauga that performed well academically before getting computers generally performed well after getting them; the reverse also holds true.



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Original Publication Date: January 2, 2014



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