When officials of the Portsmouth, Va., Public Schools decided to build a new high school with state-of-the-art technology, it was the realization of a dream for Erma Curtis-Evans, the district’s supervisor for technology and gifted and talented education.

“We were already upgrading and retrofitting our other schools for technology,” Curtis-Evans said. “This gave us a great opportunity to design a school from the ground up, with a 21st-century education in mind.”

The new $37.4 million I.C. Norcom High School, which will serve as a technology magnet school for the district, is among the most technologically advanced schools in the country, say the experts who helped build it and those who study technology use in education across the United States.

“It’s a beautiful example of what a school system can do if [leaders] decide that technology is important to teaching students,” said Randy Vaughan, owner of Portsmouth-based Ambassador Enterprises, which installed the technology and security systems in Norcom.

The school is one of the company’s more than 500 projects across Virginia, North Carolina, and throughout the world, including the area’s first high-tech school project, Ruffner Middle School in Norfolk.

Norcom High School boasts 418 computers and 135 television monitors. Its facilities are state of the art æ including a physics lab with electricity, water, and gas piped to every student table and a computer-linked, 32-inch overhead monitor.

A nearby room is packed with computer-aided design stations containing computers and lighted drawing tables. A photography darkroom has an automatic door that opens when you step on a floor mat.

Smaller centers for teachers replace a single lounge. Each center has computer ports, overhead monitors, phones, and individual teacher carrels and is situated near each learning area to maintain an adult presence near students while freeing up classrooms.

What the school doesn’t have are separate foreign-language labs. Each classroom has the capability for students to plug into recorded lessons.

No more VCR carts

The hallmark of the new school is its multimillion-dollar media distribution center. No longer must teachers run carts with televisions and VCRs up and down hallways. Now they can schedule and control tapes and other media, which are shown on 27-inch monitors, directly from their classrooms.

“Long gone are the days when we’re going to watch 25 minutes of videotape and half the students are sleeping,” Vaughan said. He envisions a teacher showing his or her class a few minutes of video, then something off a laser disc, then visiting an internet site, and maybe finishing with a computerized slide presentation.

“The teacher uses all of those disciplines and they are scheduled in advance and reserved for her,” Vaughan said. “And once they are reserved to her, during that class period, she has access to any and all.”

A wall-mounted 8-inch by 6-inch control pad, like the control on a VCR, operates the variety of video and disc players and other media. Teachers can play, pause, rewind, or fast-forward any of the media.

A strip along one wall of each classroom contains 16 data ports, high-speed computer modem connections for linking to the outside world and to the databases stored downstairs in the media distribution room.

The ports make each classroom a freestanding information center. Students can plug in and download all sorts of things, even the daily assignments, freeing teachers to “act more as facilitators … instead of writing on the chalkboard all day,” said Rocky Bell, assistant city engineer.

Each classroom can handle at least one-way teleconferencing and “local origination” feeds as well æ so a biology lab using a video microscope to check out amoebas, for example, can broadcast the images to the rest of the class or school.

Students will have passwords, so they can log on from any classroom and get what they need, while the bookmarks to their most-used web sites follow them from classroom to classroom.

“We built the school so the information is flowing, not the students,” Curtis-Evans said.

Twenty-four-hour learning

All this technology serves a definite educational objective, Curtis-Evans said: When students are successful at integrating technology into their daily work, they become more active learners. “They can be ‘producers of information,’ not just consumers. They can investigate the world, not just hear lectures about it.”

Norcom students will be able to synthesize a world’s worth of facts and data off the internet, write and produce a video report in the first-floor television studio, record and produce their own music in a music studio, or create a multimedia presentation to be sent around the school, the city, or the world from the teleconferencing room.

“That’s basically how technology can enable students: The creativity goes up,” she said. “They’re going to become active problem-solvers. … Their leadership skills are going to increase. Any time you allow someone to become a producer of something, you have a whole new level of learning.”

Other local cities are paying attention, if not using Norcom as a blueprint in planning their own secondary schools.

The new technology æ with its anytime-at-all access to information æ makes possible Curtis-Evans’ goal of Norcom some day being a 24-hour school, open to the community.

“If I can go to a grocery store any time I feel like it, certainly I should be able to access a learning center any time I feel like it,” she said.

Links:

Portsmouth Public Schools
http://pps.k12.va.us/