Three Pennsylvania school districts will become “dynamic models of 21st century education” with up to $2 million each in prize money from the state’s first-ever Digital School District contest, in which 77 districts competed for funding to transform themselves with technology.

“I’m proud to announce three school districts that will help us invent the future of education in Pennsylvania,” Gov. Tom Ridge said Feb. 22. “Together, they will teach us powerful new ways to make sure all our children learn—and to help our communities to learn with them.”

The Carlisle Area School District, Quaker Valley School District, and Spring Cove School District—representing county, suburban, and rural areas—won the opportunity to infuse technology into every aspect of education and model it for other school districts.

“When you win something of this size, it validates your ideas,” said Supterintendent Gerald Fowler of Carlisle Area School District. “We can think big thoughts, and we do have a conceptual grasp of what kids need to enter the world.”

The Carlisle Area Digital School District proposed providing the internet to every family and then delivering services through its education web portal, including 24-hour student tutoring, customized lessons for every student, and virtual courses available to all community members.

“We love teaching others about what we learn,” said Dr. R. Gerard Longo, superintendent of the Quaker Valley School District. “We view our selection as a Digital School District as an extraordinary opportunity to benefit students everywhere.” Quaker Valley students in grades three through 12 will replace their heavy book bags with eBooks, Palm Pilots, and laptops. Quaker Valley also proposed piloting ePaper, a new technology from Xerox Corp. and MIT research labs that is a thin, paper-like device that displays text.

Spring Cove was chosen as a third winner because the district showed effective use of technology in a rural school where the digital divide is often the greatest, Ridge said.

How the contest worked

Gov. Ridge started the contest last September to change two Pennsylvania school districts into ones that are so revolutionary they would serve as examples for the rest of the nation. He invited the state’s 501 districts to submit a 10-page concept paper outlining their vision to accomplish this goal.

After receiving 77 responses, a team of evaluators gradually narrowed down the lot of contestants to 30 and then to six, based on which districts had the best ideas and capability to implement them.

The six districts included the winners as well as Hatboro-Horsham School District, Franklin Regional School District, and Owen J. Roberts School District.

“Our six finalists assembled their best teams to share their plans for using technology to redefine education in Pennsylvania and to become models for the nation,” said Eugene Hickok, Pennsylvania’s education secretary.

While many of the concepts presented by the districts have been done in some capacity across the country, no single district combines every aspect.

“What we don’t have is one district doing all of that,” said John Bailey, director of educational technology for the Pennsylvania Department of Education. “It was sort of collapsing all the best practices from across the state into one district.”

Many of the districts presented concepts in which the roles of the teacher and student were interchangeable. “Students are recognizing they are not just learners, they are also teachers,” Bailey said.

Other ideas mentioned in the presentations included using Carnegie Learning’s personalized, intelligent education system that assigns work according to how the student performs and grasps concepts; using various technology products to streamline the district’s administrative offices; and using eProcurement companies such as eschoolmall.com to make purchases online.

Some districts said they were investigating using a reverse auction, from FreeMarkets.com, in which customers specify what they need and suppliers outbid each other trying to make the sale. Bailey said he also liked the concept of data warehousing solutions that let districts analyze data in different ways, like businesses do.

The six finalists each had a half-hour to make their final plea to an international panel of educational technology experts. Representatives from each district did everything they could to warm the hearts of the 12 panelists, who included Lara Brown, education consultant for TechNet in Berkley, Calif.; Michael Byrne, CEO of Eircom Ennis Information Age Town in Ennis, Ireland; Margaret Meeker, education division coordinator for the Software and Information Industry Association; Sally Sargent, senior consultant for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation; and Susan Waalkes, board member for the International Society for Technology in Education.

Bailey, who also served as one of the panelists, said some districts made videos, while others bought in students and senior citizens to testify. One district even bought four backpacks stuffed with letters from students explaining what their district would be like.

The presentations “captured elements of emotion and mood that you just can’t get on paper,” he said.

Based on the quality of responses, the Ridge administration decided to give three districts the chance to implement their proposals instead of two.

Since the districts essentially will become living laboratories where educators can visit and see demonstrations of how these various technologies work, it was important for the winning districts to prove they could serve as educational models for other schools.

“We want teachers saying, ‘Here’s the good and bad things about these products,'” Bailey said.

The districts had to demonstrate a willingness to form partnerships with high-tech companies to pilot their products, like the new Microsoft Digital Tablet. In addition, each district was required to partner with a research institution that formally will evaluate both qualitative and quantitative data.

“Part of this isn’t just to capture what works, but what doesn’t work,” Bailey said. The districts each will form a web site to show their progress, post preliminary research, and schedule visits with educators.

Bailey added that the winning districts had to prove they could live and function under a microscope. “There’s going to be a lot of media attention [placed on these districts], and a lot of people [are going to be] looking to see what works and what doesn’t,” he said.

Productive planning

Developing winning proposals and presentations for the contest demanded hard work and long hours.

“As I said to my board, I haven’t pulled any all-nighters since my college days,” said Carlisle’s Fowler.

Joseph A. Marrone, director of administrative services at Quaker Valley School District, agreed. His district worked with more than 300 community members to create their proposal.

“Trying to do your regular job and doing all the things this [contest] requires … has been hard,” Marrone said.

Superintendent James W. Scott of the Spring Cove Digital School District said the application process created some “productive tension” in his district.

“You go through a lot of bends and turns to get everybody to the same page,” Scott said. “There were a lot of late nights. There were some personality conflicts.”

All the districts that went through the process said it was the best strategic planning they’ve ever done.

“It helped us really plan for the future,” said Karen K. Florentine, director of personnel and curriculum at Owen J. Roberts School District, one of the six finalists. “We had plans in place, but this got us dreaming about the future.”

“Even if we hadn’t achieved this grant, this technology plan became superimposed over our current plan—it essentially became our new plan,” Fowler said.

Hickok agreed, saying the attitude among applicants is, “We’re not going back, win or lose.”

The state plans to award grants to some of the districts that didn’t win to help them work toward attaining their vision, Hickok said.

Carlisle Area Digital School District

Carlisle’s plan uses the power of the internet to transform the traditional notion of the bricks-and-mortar school district.

“It really isn’t a place, the digital school district of the future,” said Fowler. “It’s really about the web.”

The district will serve as a base for students, but not a place they’re required to be every day. For example, Fowler described how a student who is going on exchange will still earn high school credits through the district’s distance learning program.

“She’ll be able to be in Europe next year and still take courses here, and come back and still graduate with her senior [class],” Fowler said.

Carlisle proposed “close to 30 new initiatives,” Fowler said, including online courses for both students and adults, adding a human-rights curriculum, expanding the broadcasting program, creating a web portal, providing online career counseling, doing procurement online, and experimenting with both laptop and handheld devices.

Also, students who need extra help will get live, one-on-one tutoring over the internet after school. If the student’s family doesn’t have a computer, the school will provide one.

Several existing initiatives—including a technology plan developed with IBM, distance learning capabilities, small grants for teachers who want to pilot technology strategies, and 18 hours of mandatory technology training for teachers—set the stage for Carlisle’s proposal. The district also was the first in Pennsylvania to start a Cisco Networking Academy.

For its presentation, the district showcased its people. Some students performed a scene from Shakespeare infused with technology, while other students shared their perspectives. Fowler said the panel was impressed by their energy.

“We showed we had an eight-year history of moving forward,” Fowler said.

Quaker Valley Digital School District

All teachers at Quaker Valley already have a computer, large-screen monitor, VCR, and telephone at their desk. Each classroom receives 80 video and commecial TV channels. The district also is piloting interactive smartboards, wireless devices, and eBooks.

Teachers post their lesson plans online, and the school’s library contains an online database of 2,000 full-text periodicals so students can access them at home, at school, or in the library. The teaching of computer concepts—such as typing—starts in kindergarten. The district also built its own cart for a portable wireless classroom, and it uses distance learning to supplement classroom content and to teach rare courses such as Japanese. In addition, students and parents can call a homework hotline to find out what their teacher has assigned.

As a result of the Digital School District grant, each student in third through 12th grade will have a “QvePack” consisting of a wireless, networked notebook computer and an eBook, which will allow students to download and update textbook chapters, newspapers, and books daily.

Also, students and their families will have 24-hour access to learning resources via the internet, delivered to their homes by the district using wireless technologies. The district will deploy a tech support van to make house calls in the evening.

Spring Cove Digital School District

“We’ve always believed technology is a tool for learning,” said Superintendent James W. Scott of the Spring Cove Digital School District.

A three-year technology plan increased the district’s technology and brought the faculty beyond the awareness stage. The district has a state-of-the-art network, wireless computer lab pilots, and eMail and internet access for students and staff.

“We’ve got these resources in place, but it’s not enough to finish [the job] if you really want to be digital,” Scott said.

Spring Cove proposed extending internet access into the community to provide a seamless connection throughout the area. Parents will be able to check their children’s grades online and exchange eMail with teachers. The district’s libraries also will be connected. High school students will participate in a Senior-to-Senior program, in which students will help senior citizens use the internet.

The district plans to use CompassLearning’s Comprehensive Reading Program to offer remedial help based on individual students’ needs. It also will start an online purchasing program through eschoolmall.com, helping Spring Cove officials maintain better records while streamlining the procurement process. Finally, the district will use a student information system that analyzes its data—including spending, grades, and attendance—to increase accountability.

Links:

Digital School District contest
http://l2l.org/digitalsd/phaseone.html

Pennsylvania Department of Education
http://www.pde.psu.edu

Carlisle Area School District
http://www.carlisleschools.org

Quaker Valley School District
http://www.qvsd.org

Spring Cove School District
http://www.scsd.k12.pa.us

Franklin Regional School District
http://www.franklinregional.k12.pa.us

Hatboro-Horsham School District
http://www.hatboro-horsham.org

Owen J. Roberts School District
http://www.ojr.k12.pa.us