Like many school systems, Maryland’s Charles County Public Schools had different tracks for high school students who were going on to college and those pursuing vocational training. This outdated model ultimately reduced the status of voc-ed to a lower level than academic programs.
James Richmond, our district superintendent, championed the idea of a 21st- century school that would bring vocational and academic students together in one facility. The school also would integrate advanced technology into its fabric and culture. Our goal was to create classrooms and courses driven by technology accessible at users’ fingertips. With the help of the governor’s office, a budget of about $50 million was approved in the late 90s to build a 311,000-square-foot building, called North Point High School For Science, Technology, and Industry. Our state superintendent, Nancy Grasmick, said, “It was the first time I’ve seen a facility that was designed around a program.”
After an extensive evaluation, we selected Cisco Systems equipment for our network infrastructure. The principle technology components in the new school are a converged IP network infrastructure that supports voice, data, and video; IP-based environment controls for HVAC and lighting; a wireless network in all classrooms and offices; IP phones in every classroom; wireless IP phones for administrators; LCD projectors in every classroom; 500 desktop PCs; 300 laptop PCs on wireless carts; and tablet PCs for teachers.
At North Point, we have 58 career majors, from cosmetology to criminal science. If you walk down the halls, it’s impossible to tell science, technology, and industry (STI) students from students taking the traditional high-school curriculum.
We do not have a separate STI wing. In fact, we located classrooms and designed our programs with the goal of enriching the entire learning experience, rather than separating the student bodies. For example, the carpentry classrooms are located across from the theater, so the carpentry students can work on set designs. In a criminal justice class, students who are studying law work alongside students who want to be police officers or crime scene investigators.
All of our courses are designed to the latest technology and industry standards, so students have the option of going directly into the workforce or advancing to college. We use technology to add even more richness and flexibility to our programs. We believe in teaching the way young people are learning today. We look for faculty members who are comfortable with a technology culture, because we want it to be integral to the way they teach, not just an adjunct tool. For example…
Streaming video to the desktop: Every classroom has an LCD projector with access to streaming video, the internet, video clips, and other resources. At any given moment, at least 80 percent of teachers are using this technology. We’ve recently added a new piece of technology called a Sympodium, which allows the teacher to write and draw over anything on the screen. My daily announcements are transmitted as a video feed to all PCs, and then to the projectors.
Wireless connectivity: A wireless network throughout the building has given us enormous flexibility in how we use our classrooms and structure our courses. Teachers can set up their classrooms based on their lesson plans, not where the computer jacks are located. Recently, one of our math teachers taught a lesson on wind propulsion by bringing his students into the hallway to race matchbox cars. They brought their laptops with them to do spreadsheets and analysis.
I use my wireless tablet throughout the day to access reports, student records, memos, and other documents. No matter where I am in the building, I can also access and control any of the school’s IP-based security cameras. I can check the identity of someone standing 750 feet away in the main hallway. If I get a call in the middle of the night about a possible intruder in the school, I can inspect the entire building from home. In the event of an emergency, our sheriff’s department can access the security cameras to check every part of the building.
IP phones: All of our teachers use IP telephones for everything from voice mail to conferencing. We have intelligent 911 in case of emergencies. In the future, we’ll be adding XML-based applications for attendance.
IP phones have made it faster and easier to move teachers to new classrooms. Instead of rewiring phones, we just plug the teacher’s phone into a new port, and he’s up and running–same extension number, features, and services.
All of our administrative staff use wireless IP phones, which allow us to be out in the hallways, in the classrooms, or meeting with parents or faculty and still be reachable wherever we are. With walkie-talkies, anyone on the same band can overhear your conversation, which is not desirable when you’re discussing confidential matters or if there’s an emergency in the building.
Distance learning: In the past, distance learning was an expensive luxury that required high-end video conferencing equipment, dedicated networks, and special rooms. Today, it’s simply an application we add to our network at any time. We can plug in a webcam anywhere in the building and initiate a video conference between classrooms or with a student at home.