It used to be that East Harlem schools were devoid of computers, and progress toward the truly integrated use of technology was slow. Now, however, East Harlem schools feature a technological approach that may be emulated by schools all over New York City.

The New York City Board of Education founded Project Smart Schools in 1997 to address the technological needs of the city’s students. Schools in East Harlem received some computers from the program and, more importantly, the staff to maintain and teach about them. The project took off like gangbusters over the next few years, and teachers used their computers to learn, instruct students, and run their classrooms. Additionally, school libraries started using their own computers and got hooked up to the internet.

When the schools’ technology experts assessed their progress, they were encouraged. Teachers really used their computers, the students responded, and curriculum and software had been created for these new approaches. Still, it wasn’t until some of the project’s technical staff attended a conference in Seattle and got the laptop bug that East Harlem’s technology program truly reached its potential.

Officials felt that portable computers could solve East Harlem’s technology challenges, particularly the deployment and access of computers to all students. Cost was prohibitive, so the technology team set up partnerships with private entities to donate equipment, services, consulting, and professional development, along with other items. In reaching out to potential partners, East Harlem dangled the prospect of testing and demonstrating their products in a portion of the huge but largely untapped market represented by the city’s schools.

Students have responded enthusiastically to the laptops, even more so than to the original program with stationary computers. These kids, living in the confines of an urban environment, can make contact with others living all over the world and gain a unique perspective they never had access to before.

The East Harlem district also works with another group of schools in Brooklyn, creating projects shared by students from the two areas. Focused on sociological issues, these projects have brought new perspectives to students and taught them teamwork.

The tech team has been choosy about who it partners with in the private sector, keeping educational goals a priority. This care has resulted in a successful combination of just the right equipment and software from the likes of AlphaSmart, Lexmark, Classroom Connect, and Steck Vaughn.

Teachers are learning, too. The project provides professional development and support, and some private-sector entities have even donated their grant-writing expertise. One thing the district learned is that the typical after-school workshop was not an effective training model; more effective was training in the context of instructional projects. Teachers and staff developers worked side by side in the creation of standards-driven, interdisciplinary projects that integrated technology into the curriculum.