BellSouth Foundation supports leadership in technology

Each year of the three-year, $10-million edu.pwr3 (EduPower) program supported by the BellSouth Foundation has been built around a different theme, but together the programs are designed to drive systemic reform in the use of technology in schools. This ambitious goal reflects the BellSouth Foundation’s understanding that using technology as a force to better the lives of students in southern states requires more than merely exposing students and their educators to technology.

This year’s grants, “Power to Teach,” support projects that are encouraging the use of technology on a regular basis throughout a school or district. “We are trying to reach a critical mass [of teachers using technology] within a school or district,” says Kim Mulkey, BellSouth Foundation’s technology director. “Until you reach that critical mass, old behaviors will continue to overtake new ones.”

Breaking those old behaviors requires taking a fresh look at each situation. “You can’t take a cookie-cutter approach to this issue,” Mulkey says. “Schools don’t have the same sets of assets—human or technological.”

As a result, BellSouth Foundation is supporting a wide variety of projects, though the projects all have similar aims. Several projects are of the “train-the-trainer” variety, while others are focused on developing programs that can be given to teachers without training and then used in the classroom. In all, the foundation awarded about $6 million to approximately 50 grantees for this year.

BellSouth Foundation expects a great deal from its grant recipients. In addition to proposing quality projects, recipients are expected to form partnerships and coalitions that have the momentum and resources to outlive the foundation’s support. “The most any group could get from us was $150,000, so it’s necessary to find other partners to reach that critical mass,” Mulkey says.

One outcome may be that project leaders develop some best-practice insights that can be replicated across many school environments. One insight that’s already emerged, according to Mulkey, is that “you can’t send people to training sessions and then return them to their school without the equipment they had in training. You’d be surprised how often ‘train-the-trainer’ courses don’t take this into account.”

Important insights such as this have been the hallmark of the program so far. Last year, the first phase of BellSouth’s edu.pwr3 program, “Power to Lead,” targeted school superintendents. These superintendents took part in seminars designed to increase their technology acumen for planning, budgeting, and developing technology in their school districts. Then they applied for $1 million in grants to help develop and accelerate their systems’ technology plans. Grant recipients were required to create coalitions outside of their schools to sustain technology development and integration within their districts—an effort with which many were unfamiliar.

“We believe this taught superintendents and school districts how to engage in professional development, how to structure programs, how to identify leaders in individual schools, and how to think about infrastructure,” Mulkey says. For these reasons, “several recipients have told us that preparing for the grant program itself became an experience in learning.”

The final year of the program, which is called “Power to Learn,” will be invitation-only. Power to Learn is an initiative in which BellSouth will support the study of how selected schools integrate technology into kids’ learning. Here, too, the company has specific targets in mind. “We will look at schools with high integration of technology and levels of sophistication by teachers,” says Mulkey. “I’m talking about schools with three to five or more computers per classroom, plus support staff. We’ll be asking these schools, ‘What do you need to move further ahead, to set the standards for learning for the next generation of schools?'”

Power to Learn poses many challenges. Because technology changes so rapidly, it is difficult to conduct “longitudinal studies” in this area. By the time the study is complete, the technology has changed—which can make it difficult and untimely to apply what has been learned. Reducing this time gap is key to the program, Mulkey says.

Mulkey believes the BellSouth Foundation will be able to discover other measures of achievement besides test scores. “We need to look at performance in a larger context, to broaden our images of students and people,” she says.

Once the Power to Learn year wraps up, BellSouth Foundation may take a very different path in supporting technology in schools. The foundation is now formulating its next five-year plan for educational technology. “Our theme for the past five years was systemic reform, and we know that a single program is not likely to reform the whole system,” she says. “We’ll likely to do something that continues with the components of EduPower—professional development, policy, leadership, and innovative programs.”

The BellSouth Foundation is a corporate foundation created by BellSouth Corp. in 1986. The foundation has funded more than 500 grants and operated numerous special initiatives with a total investment of more than $4 million. Its mission is to improve education in the South by stimulating fundamental change in primary and secondary education, resulting in active learning and improved outcomes for all students. n

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