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At Westside High, learning ‘is no longer a six-hours-a-day event’

iPads are just one of the many tools that Westside High uses to help personalize learning.

Westside High School (WHS), part of Nebraska’s Westside Community Schools, owes much of its success to its focus on effective ed-tech integration that extends learning beyond the school bell. Its one-to-one computing program encourages student creativity and productivity—and school leaders are committed to using technology to meet the unique needs of every learner.

For these reasons, WHS was chosen as our “eSchool of the Month” for July/August. Here, Kent Kingston, the district’s executive director of administrative and technology services, describes some of the school’s accomplishments and its keys to success.

(Editor’s note: To nominate your school or district for our “eSchool of the Month” feature, go to:

How does your school use technology to advance student learning?

Westside High School focuses on using technology as a tool to improve teaching and learning. All certified staff and 1,952 students have had Apple laptops since the district’s one-to-one computing initiative was first approved in 2004. Standard software includes Microsoft Office, iWorks, and the iLife multimedia suite. Other useful software programs, like GarageBand, Comic Life, and Photo Booth, unleash creativity. In addition, some or all machines run specific applications recommended by staff, such as CAD for Engineering Technology classes. All WHS students can access Wi-Fi and printer services throughout the building.

Students access course documents and resources, take assessments, or participate in class discussions via the Blackboard learning management system or building wikis and blogs. They communicate with peers and teachers through First Class eMail accounts and use Noodle Tools to record and organize research information. Teachers and students podcast, tweet school news, and use iPods, iPads, notebooks, Flip video cameras, and green screen technology to improve teaching and learning.

We have always known that a small number of our students—most of them students of poverty—did not have connectivity at home. In 2011, our District Poverty Plan proposed Crickett mobile phone cards for ninth-grade students who were otherwise not connected outside of the school day. Today, nine students love using the devices. Our ultimate goal is that 100 percent of our students will have the 24-7 connectivity we know improves learning and student achievement.

Have you noticed an increase in student performance and/or motivation as a result of this technology use? If so, how?

Since the first one-to-one laptop initiative in 2004, the district’s demographics became more challenging. Ethnicity increased by 7 percent, while poverty increased by 5 percent. However, Westside High School’s ACT/SAT averages and state writing assessment scores also increased, because WHS gave students the tools they needed to perform well. More than 80 percent of students taking the ACT earned consistently higher composite averages than students from similar metropolitan, state, and national high schools; average scores ran between 24.2 and 24.7 between 2005 and 2010. The 20 percent of students taking the SAT also consistently earned higher averages, with the 2010 math composite score of 648 setting a school record.

Most convincing are data from the state writing assessment. Between 2005 and 2010, all students went from being 92.91 percent proficient to 99.56 percent proficient. Black students’ scores jumped 26.09 percent, Hispanic students’ scores jumped 10 percent, and Asian students’ scores jumped 6.67 percent. Scores for students of poverty jumped 16.22 percent.

How does your school use technology to streamline school administration and aid in decision-making?

Technology affects school administration 24/7. PowerSchool is the hub for student demographics, attendance records, archived PowerGrade scores, and transcript information. FileMaker Pro frequently repackages data for easy use. Streamlined access to attendance data, with automated phone calls and eMail appointment scheduling, caused a precipitous drop in unexcused absences over the past year.

Because everyone expects online teaching and learning to happen every day, security is of utmost importance. The iPrism filtering system operates whether students are in classrooms, at home, or on an Apple-sponsored trip to London to talk about technology integration. Remote Desktop runs constantly to assure legal, ethical, and safe use of hardware, software, and network resources. Password-protected PowerSchool, PowerGrade, Blackboard, and eMail accounts and wiki and podcast servers keep teaching and learning information safe. The Safari Respondis locked-down browser maintains online testing integrity for Blackboard and state assessments.

Modular scheduling gives students independent study time and freedom to move around the building, so communication is vital. Administrators and hall supervisors use mobile devices to check student schedules and communicate regarding building security. Cable TV students use to tweet play-by-plays and reviews from sporting events and activities.

Has your school realized an increase in efficiency, a savings in administrative costs, or some other tangible benefits as a result of this technology use? If so, how?

Technology integration makes the world larger than it ever was, and it improves staff and student performance. Staff and students can’t conceive of teaching and learning in a modern high school without the technology integration they enjoy every day. As the world’s information base grows exponentially, teachers and students access global perspectives, the newest ideas, and improved resources 24/7. “School” is no longer a six-hours-a-day event.

Technology integration also makes the world smaller than we ever thought it could be. Staff and students know communication and stakeholder involvement are better with technology integration. What formerly took days now takes minutes, as all the stakeholders who should be involved in educational decisions are just an eMail, iChat, tweet, automated phone call, website, or text message away.

How has your school financed its technology initiatives?

Excellence and innovation are cornerstones of Westside, so its board embraced proposals for certified staff laptops in 2001, high school one-to-one laptops in 2004, and a student and staff laptop refresh in 2007. Each initiative was funded by property tax dollars. Minimal e-Rate and grant dollars fund less than 1 percent of our technology budget. e-Rate dollars buy connectivity, while grant dollars support pilots of technology resources.

Westside is located in a mixed socioeconomic residential area surrounded by thriving commercial developments. Though the property tax base grew steadily for years, in 1998 Nebraska capped the maximum property tax levy at $1.10, with the cap decreasing to $1.00 in 2001. Levy caps do not apply to levies paying off bonds or lease-purchase agreements, and voters can override the limits for up to five years. In 1998, 2003, and 2008, Westside taxpayers overrode the levy cap and approved an additional $.10 of budget authority over five years. In 2010-11, technology leaders delayed a second laptop refresh and used good in-house technology support and repair services to weather out the worst of the recession while they revised the technology integration plan in light of new technology options, budget parameters, and an upcoming levy override election.

What initiative are you most proud of, and why?

As early as the 1960s, the district’s vision led to a modular schedule that lets WHS control time as needed to best serve learners. A $28 million renovation between 1998 and 2000 yielded a state-of-the-art, technology-rich facility. The 2004 one-to-one laptop initiative for students meshed with the modular schedule and building to create a learning environment that is not bound by bricks and mortar.

WHS was the first public school in the state—and among the first in the nation—to provide laptops for all teachers and students, to provide wireless connectivity throughout the building, and to expect innovative teachers and students to harness the powerful hardware, software, and network resources as tools for teaching and learning. Skilled district and building leaders focused professional development on building teachers’ skills in effective instruction, knowing that technology is an amplifier. If good teaching occurs, technology amplifies it. If good learning occurs, technology amplifies it.

WHS was among the first group of schools in the nation to be recognized as an Apple Distinguished School. This year, WHS was recognized again for the fourth consecutive year.

What have been your biggest ed-tech challenges, and why? How have you overcome those challenges?

Technology integration presents challenges. One primary challenge is financial. Despite the worst recession in decades and shrinking budgets, Westside remains committed to keeping technology integration off the cutting board because it is one of the things that make us uniquely what we are.

A second challenge is people-related. One hundred and seventy teachers have different comfort levels with integrating technology and nearly require 170 IEPs! Westside’s strong teaming structures combine “gunners” with “phobics,” so even the most reluctant teachers get the support and motivation they need for effective integration. Good ongoing professional development offerings extend the gunners’ skills and motivation. Successful technology integration flies on the wings of building leaders. Westside has had visionary building leaders supporting both sustained excellence and the risk-taking environment that fosters continuous innovation.

A third challenge was determining how to manage the ongoing maintenance and repair needs of 2,500 laptop computers. No other schools our size had dealt with maintenance and repair in-house. We hired support people with good technology skills and helped them earn Apple and Cisco certifications. The first year, nearly 100 percent of maintenance and repair was sent out. Today, our Apple certified techs meet nearly 100 percent of maintenance and repair needs in-house. One tech is a certified teacher whose students apply what they learn to our hardware, software, and network repair and maintenance.

What’s your best or most useful ed-tech advice for your colleagues?

We would tell colleagues to embark on technology integration when the highest possible percentage of the staff has already embraced best practices in content, instruction, assessment, and classroom management. “Good” teachers understand teaching and learning and can use technology to amplify positive outcomes in a positive way. The converse is also true; “bad” teachers who do not understand teaching and learning will amplify negative outcomes in a negative way.

We would also promote embarking on technology integration when the leadership in the building “gets” the power technology has to change teaching and learning, and is willing to give teachers the freedom they need to explore technology use, the permission they need to try what might work without fear or reservations, and the encouragement they need to share what does work with others.

Finally, we would promote embarking on technology integration with technology leaders who have education backgrounds. Though business acumen is valuable, educators who lead technology integration empathize with teacher efforts and struggles to use technology effectively. In addition, they will see technology as the tool it should be, rather than as the lesson to be learned.

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