It's funny what a few spiffy computers can do for the students in a small school. The Athol Public Schools are certainly not what anyone would call well-funded; if you've been reading my blogs for the last year, then you'll know that we are, in fact, the epitome of aging mill-town, NCLB unfunded mandate-ness. However, our administrators have recently been dragged kicking and screaming into the 21st century by said unfunded mandates. I, of course, am more than happy to tag along. More importantly, so are our students.
I just rolled out the first piece of our tech refresh today, a 20-seat lab devoted to CAD, math, and computer science. Student and teachers spent the day popping their heads in and asking what classes were going to be offered in the lab next year (we're in the middle of course selections). Even my Drama Club students were intrigued and the students in the current CAD classes were astounded at the new 3D modeling software they could finally run with 256MB of video memory. Those 3D models were incredibly enticing on 17" flat panels, too, or shown on the new LCD projector in the front of the room.
Sure, there's a wow factor here and certainly some novelty in a school filled with Pentium II's and donated CRTs. However, when students start asking about the math classes they might be able to take to start using the new machines, then we just might be on the right track. The math teachers are already clamoring for professional development on the use of Maple and Geometer's Sketchpad to enhance classes they've been teaching for years from aging textbooks. The business teachers were thrilled to see the presentation my intern put together on new features in Office 2007 since there will be three labs with something a bit more up-to-date than Office 2000.
From a staff that has struggled year after year against programmatic cuts and ridiculously limited resources, these new computers represent a significant morale boost as well as an opportunity to engage students from Generation ipod in ways that haven't seemed possible for some time. Our school is over 50 years old; an infusion of technology (leased to ensure lifecycle funding and regularly-updated technology) has done an awful lot to make the school feel new and competitive with our better-funded neighbors. Better yet, while we spent a lot of money by local standards, tumbling hardware prices and careful analysis of needs allowed us to buy a significant amount of equipment for a relatively small dollar amount.
For students as well who feel like they attend a second-rate school (regardless of the actual quality of education they may be receiving), these computers represent a leveling of the playing field and an opportunity to experience the state of the art in a region more focused on economic survival than creating a highly-skilled workforce competitive in a global economy. These computers represent opportunity, period. This isn't just schmaltz, by the way. The kids are genuinely excited and eager to help.
Parents are even getting involved, offering time, supplies, and expertise (turns out our little town has some pretty serious closet geeks). I'm hoping that the local paper, which recently featured a front-page picture of the pile of junk computers in our abandoned auto shop, just might have a few pictures of students using shiny new machines. That might be too much to ask, but the point remains the same. It's not just about teaching tech - it's about the messages we send to our students, teachers, and community.