Western pioneer

After 18 years on the job, Calvin Baker still strives for his district to be the first in the region to embrace new technologies to improve student achievement. As a result, his district is widely known as one of the first in the nation to swap textbooks for laptops–and Baker himself was honored as one of 10 “Tech-Savvy Superintendent Award” winners by eSchool News last year.

“I’m most proud of creating an environment where our staff and students can excel,” said Baker, superintendent of the Vail School District, which serves 8,200 students in the southeast corner of Tucson, Ariz., plus 425 square miles outside of the city.

The secret to Baker’s success? “It’s about hiring good people, giving them the tools to be successful, and creating an environment where they feel safe enough to take risks and do innovative and creative things,” he said.

Vail’s list of pioneering innovations is noteworthy. The district was one of the first in the area to get every classroom and office connected to the internet; the first to install a wireless wide-area network; and the first to provide parents with real-time access to grades and attendance.

Most risky on its list of innovations: Vail was the first district in the state to adopt a completely digital curriculum at its one-to-one laptop high school, which opened last year.

At Empire High School, each student was given an Apple iBook laptop. To make the most of this one-to-one computing environment, the district decided to forgo traditional textbooks in favor of digital instructional materials.

As part of the planning process for this new high school model, district officials visited schools in California, Kansas, and Maine that had initiated one-to-one laptop programs. “We looked around, and we liked the level of engagement at these one-to-one schools,” Baker said. “But we also saw that teachers were teaching like they would at a traditional school.”

It seemed as though the laptops were an overlay to the traditional curriculum, “like icing on the cake,” he explained.

The planning committee, which included a small group of teachers, agreed that teaching methodologies needed to change to ensure successful integration of the laptops.

To force teachers to teach differently, the district used its textbook money to buy the laptops, Baker said. Also, teachers who were recruited to work at the school had to be committed to adapt to the new format.

“The common assumption [people make] when they read about or hear about our school is that we are using digital textbooks,” Baker said. “That’s not the case. We use a real smorgasbord of instructional materials.”

Social studies teachers use ABC-CLIO products; science teachers use free materials from universities, NASA, and science foundations; and math teachers use some digital textbooks as resources.

Primarily, teachers decide what instructional materials to use. This requires more work, but giving teachers the freedom to choose their own instructional materials is viewed as an expression of creativity–especially compared with the mundane task of preparing students for high-stakes tests.

“I believe one of the best indicators of teacher acceptance was turnover,” Baker said. “After that first year, our turnover was zero. Every single staff member came back.”

Baker advises others not to focus too much on the technology but on the relationships with staff. “If the teachers at Empire High School weren’t being valued, if all of this technology was being dumped on them because someone at the district office had a brilliant idea, then it would have failed,” he said.

After its first year of operation, the state rated Empire High School as “highly performing,” the second-best rating a school can receive. Test scores have been well above average, Baker said.

Not only are test scores up, but students are learning workplace skills–and the laptops appeal to kids’ interest in technology.

Today’s students, who often are referred to in education circles as “digital natives,” are practiced at instant messaging, file sharing, and gaming. But when it comes to organizing, communicating, and distributing their work, their skills are generally weak. “They weren’t very good at simple things, like saving and organizing files,” Baker said. The district learned some hard lessons in the first year of the program, Baker said: “There was no one to follow. There was no pattern. We were finding our way.”

He added, “We are very glad that we started out with a significant amount of control over the laptops.” Students couldn’t install anything on their machines or send eMail or instant messages.

This policy sent the immediate message that the laptops’ primary purpose was for education. Now, to make the machines more personalized and valued, students are permitted to download and store music on their laptops.

Everything students do on their laptops goes through the district’s server. Students submit their homework using either Studywiz or Turnitin.com, and they are allowed to eMail outside of class hours.

Baker aspires for openness throughout the Vail School District by guaranteeing a high degree of communication.

Student records are stored in digital format and made available in real time. All the district’s schools use the PowerSchool student information system, which allows parents or students to go online at any time to see any grade, attendance record, or assignment. Teachers are accessible via voice mail and eMail.

Although state tests are only administered yearly, district teachers give benchmark tests via computer at the end of each quarter. Also, teachers can access formative assessments on the district’s web site to test a subject unit just taught.

Vail has two charter schools, one of which is technology-focused. Vail High School sits in the middle of the University of Arizona’s Science and Technology Park. The 150 students who attend this charter school are surrounded each day by about 7,000 adults working in high-tech fields. The school uses Windows-based PCs.

The state recently awarded three individuals from Vail as the high school principal of the year, elementary school principal of the year, and technology director of the year for 2005-06. “When these kinds of things occur, they also tend to occur in the classroom as well,” Baker said.

The state rated 12 schools in Vail last year. Nine received the highest rating, “excelling,” and three received the second-best rating, “highly performing.”

Baker, who graduated with a degree in elementary education from Grand Canyon University in Phoenix, taught fifth, sixth, and eighth grades in Phoenix suburbs for five years.

After earning his master’s degree in education from Arizona State University, he was looking for something different. On a whim, he interviewed for and got a job as principal of a high school in Kotzebue, Alaska. Baker spent nine years as principal of a couple of schools in the area that served students from small Eskimo villages.

Baker became a principal in Vail in 1988. He was already a school administrator when computers became prevalent in schools.

“I was attracted to the efficiency they brought,” Baker said. He also viewed computers as an equalizer.

Baker’s knowledge of computers is self-taught. He began using Apple IIe computers in Alaska to do high school course scheduling.

“In the early years, when I was superintendent, we were small enough that I served as the technology director of the district,” Baker said.


Vail School District http://vail.k12.az.us

eSchool News Staff

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