Supe, 30, shatters rural stereotypes

Thirty-year-old Bart Banfield, one of the youngest superintendents in the nation, was still in school when the internet exploded into the mainstream of American life. As a result, he can appreciate firsthand how today’s technology tools are transforming teaching and learning. This firsthand experience has helped Banfield lead Oklahoma’s Stidham Public Schools–a one-school district with just 135 students in pre-kindergarten through eighth grade–to the forefront of technology integration.

Banfield’s district is quickly breaking stereotypes about rural schools and limited access to technology. Dubbed “Oklahoma’s most progressive dependent school,” Stidham aims to “provide a progressive learning environment that challenges and encourages students to recognize and maximize their unique learning potential in the 21st century,” Banfield said.

Having a superintendent who’s of nearly the same generation as his students is helping Stidham reach this goal.

“Because I am part of the digital generation more so than older superintendents, that is certainly one of the driving forces in why our district is at the forefront of technology,” said Banfield, who reportedly became Oklahoma’s youngest superintendent when he took the helm at Stidham at age 27. “We have grown up with technology, and there is less apprehension and fear in incorporating it into our everyday curriculum.”

All of Stidham’s teachers use tablet PCs and digital projectors in their instruction, and students have rotating access to laptop computers with wireless connectivity. “The digital generation probably better understands the unlimited potential and possibilities that technology can bring to a school district,” Banfield said. “Technology for us is a priority and a fixture in our annual budget, just like paying the electric bill or water bill. We budget for technology regardless of the state’s or the nation’s economy. Some school districts purchase technology only if they receive a grant or supplemental appropriation–they look at technology as an initiative. We view technology as an imperative.” With 93 percent of his students qualifying for free or reduced-price lunches, Banfield said his goal is to change the face of rural education and give his students a chance to develop strong technology skills–something they can take with them as they go on to high school.

“I believe technology, laptops, and the internet have changed the game,” he said. “The reason I am so enthusiastic about technology is because I feel it is the great equalizer. Technology doesn’t care about your socio-economic status, race, or gender. You either have the necessary skills or you don’t.”

The school has a student-to-laptop ratio of 2 to 1, the best in the state, Banfield said, and Stidham recently purchased a dozen 2,000-lumen digital video projectors from InFocus Corp., one for each classroom. Each teacher also has a brand-new wireless tablet PC from Hewlett-Packard Co. “We’re always setting new goals, and a dream of mine is for Stidham students to have their very own laptops every day,” Banfield said. “That’s a very bold goal, but that’s something to work toward, and I think we’re moving in the right direction–it just takes time.” The entire school is wireless, inside and out, and is connected to a T1 line.

The school’s greatest accomplishment, Banfield said, is its One-to-One Learning concept. Banfield researched one-to-one computing projects in Maine and Michigan and said he took the best of what both states were doing and tried to create a program that would be practical in a rural setting.

“Simply put, One-to-One Learning is one laptop for every child in [his or her] regular classroom setting,” Banfield said. The laptops, which are stored on moving carts, are set up and monitored by each classroom teacher, and students are able to use them for individualized instruction to supplement classroom lessons.

The program is quickly changing the way students in this rural school view education and their future, Banfield said.

“The laptops provide the opportunity for individualized instruction, which is key,” he said. “This one-to-one concept lets us cater the curriculum, at the teacher’s discretion, to each student’s unique learning ability.”

Because children work on the laptops independently, but at the same time, students who read at a more advanced level can be challenged with more difficult reading material on a laptop during a reading lesson.

Students use the wireless, high-speed laptops at least four days each week, said Banfield. The school has set up a laptop rotation schedule, so teachers can plan lessons according to which days they have the laptops. The carts hold 22 laptops, and each cart has a network printer providing wireless printing capability from each computer.

“It’s supplementing the curriculum, it’s engaging, and it’s hands-on, which the kids love,” Banfield said.

And teachers do, too.

“I love the program,” said Shannon Tankersley, a second-grade teacher who also teaches science to grades five through eight. “On Monday morning, we type our spelling words for the week, and we have a test on them on Friday. I write them on the board … and they type the words on the computer, which not only gives them hands-on learning, but they also say each word as they type it. Kids with all different styles, whether they learn better by typing it or hearing it, are accommodated.”

Tankersley’s second-grade class is learning how to structure sentences, and she uses the laptops to teach her students how to capitalize letters and create spacing between words. Using several web-based subscription services that are aligned with Oklahoma’s state-mandated objectives, students can access materials in different colors and voices, helping them learn more effectively.

Her students also use Renaissance Learning’s Accelerated Reader software on the laptops to improve their reading skills. “They read a book from the library and take a comprehension test when they’re done,” Tankersley said. “They work at their own pace using their laptops, and once they’ve completed the test it is automatically graded and I get a grade report.”

Tankersley uses her classroom’s projector to help her students with the time-telling unit during their mathematics lessons. By projecting a clock on the screen in both traditional and digital format, students can have access to two different forms to help them learn how to read a clock.

During science with her older students, which includes special-needs children, Tankersley said she uses her tablet PC to make class notes in a journal, using different colors for questions and answers, which she projects for the whole class to see. “Some students will never be able to take notes from a board,” she said.

“It has taken me about three years to find the programs and the web sites that I feel go along with the curriculum that the school and state have mandated,” said Leanne Lehrling, whose main class is a combined third and fourth grade. “It’s not just ‘sit down and go,’ it is a long process, and it’s been evolving.”

Lehrling coordinates her students’ computer use with reading tests and lesson reviews. “The notebooks have really played a big role,” she said, referring to the tablet PCs that each teacher has.

“I’m hoping that these students will be able to see what’s out there and will break a cycle,” she said. “We have a lot of [students whose families are on] welfare, and it’s become generational. This technology shows them that there is something else they can do.”

The school has a technology specialist on staff and filters web content. “I don’t really worry about the kids getting into something else,” Lehrling said. “We have an excellent filter, and I make sure that every single laptop screen faces me so that I can see them at all times.”

Of the school’s one-to-one computing program, she added, “I don’t want other schools to think this is one of those deals where you put the kids online and lean back. It’s very time-consuming, and it’s more involved than regular curriculum, and I’ve spent hours making sure that things were secure and that guidelines were followed. It really is a lot of work, but the payoff is huge. My kids have just been really blessed by having all this.”

Even students in the three-year-old and four-year-old programs, as well as kindergarteners, participate in the One-to-One Learning initiative.

The program receives funding from the federal, state, and local levels. Technology is a priority for Stidham school officials–starting with the superintendent, which is one reason the school is so heavily invested in technology education. “There are lots of districts out there run by superintendents who have a fear of technology–they fear change, and you can see that in the direction that their schools go,” Banfield said. “We believe in technology.”

Banfield said he has heard from several Stidham students who, after going on to high school, said they missed the advanced technology access that Stidham provided. “We’re trying to prepare these students to step into the 21st century and the cutting edge of technology, and our hope is that [Stidham] instills a certain comfort level with technology,” he said.

“I’ll put it this way–I have tried a lot of different things to get my children to learn, and since I’ve been able to use this technology, it’s amazing how much they have been able to grasp and retain,” Tankersley said.

“For my special-education students, it’s incredible to see the difference in their daily test scores and their homework performance,” she added. Being able to project larger images onto a screen and write in different colors has done wonders for their education, Tankersley said.

“We’re not just educating our students for today, we’re educating them for the future, and if we can’t teach them some technology skills, they are going to be lost,” Tankersley said. “I really and truthfully cannot tell you the difference that it has made. If I had to, I would trade in my textbooks before I would trade in my projector.”

Banfield concluded: “I think there is a stereotype for rural schools, that we’re all about 4H and agriculture, and that we’re inferior from an academic standpoint. [Stidham] is starting to change that perception by developing a reputation for technological excellence. … We’re literally bridging the gap between the haves and the have-nots.”


Stidham Public Schools

Laura Ascione

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