Narrowing the Divide and Nurturing Tech Experts in Sterling Morton Schools

Ellen Ullman

When the administrators at J. Sterling Morton High School District 201 (Morton 201) in Cicero, Illinois decided to go 1:1 towards the end of 2012, they knew money would be a challenge. Morton 201 is a low-income district with 96 percent of the students qualifying for free or reduced-price lunch. But that didn’t stop the leadership from finding a way to get devices into student’s hands. “We understand our demographics and limited resources,” says board of education president Jeffry Pesek, “but we are also conscious of the digital divide. We look at our 1:1 as an opportunity to expand the horizon for our children.”

“We started with iPads in classroom, but the learning stopped when we collected the device,” says superintendent Dr. Michael Kuzniewski. “BYOD would not work for us, but 1:1—where everyone has the same device—allows our students to access the world. Our students hear about Europe and it’s a distant destination. But with a device, they can get there electronically.”

Fortunately, Title 1 funds could be used for the laptops. The district decided to start with the freshman class and continue to purchase devices for each incoming freshman class. That was the easy part. Next came the more challenging tasks: forming committees, researching other 1:1 programs, selecting student and teacher devices, and ensuring that teachers had plenty of training.

In August, the two freshman campuses received their Dell Latitude 13 education series laptops. Now that the one-to-one program is under way, the district is able to share its strategies and look to the future. “We’ve learned that technology is an additional tool that enhances learning by allowing students to collaborate, communicate, and create. Whenever the leadership meets, we make sure that what we are doing allows students to do those three things. If not, then we can forget it,” says Keith Beisman, director of instructional technology.

Today’s Students are Tomorrow’s Technicians

One of the most innovative aspects of Morton 201’s 1:1 program is the Technology Service Internship (TSI) program, in which students are learning to fix the laptops and assist teachers in the transition. It started last April, when 100 eighth-graders signed up and attended boot camps run by the district, Dell, and Microsoft. Today, TSI students get to school an hour early every day. They rotate through customer service, hardware support, online education (including Microsoft and other certification programs), and networking stations, gaining hands-on experience in troubleshooting Internet, software, and hardware problems.

After the Latitude 13 education series laptops were distributed in August, TSI students made sure that every student could access essential tools like Edline, Skyward, and Outlook. In less than one week, they serviced 800 students.

“We have nine full-time IT staff in our district, so the TSI students fill an incredible need,” says Pesek. Samantha Skubal, the TSI teacher at the Morton Freshmen Center, agrees wholeheartedly. Her goals are to help the students be as professional as possible while they develop their tech chops. “I teach them how to address people and how to speak to their customers. Also, they watch informational videos about tech topics like cyber crime and improve their literacy skills by writing about what they learn on Edline.”

Typically, the TSI room handles five to 10 issues per class – ranging from keyboards not working to Google Chrome getting accidentally deleted. In addition to diagnosing and fixing the laptops, TSI students help teachers set up applications and feel confident about integrating technology in their classes. “A teacher will say, ‘I want this website shown during my class,’ so I prep the students and they help the teacher by walking around the class and being an extra resource,” says Skubal.

In just a few months the TSI project has exceeded district expectations, says Kuzniewski. “At the end of four years, the TSI students will have Microsoft, Linux, and other certifications. They will graduate and be employable.”

Dell Latitudes Education Series Laptops Were the Right Choice

While in the planning phase, the 1:1 device committee came up with parameters including an 11-inch touch screen and a $400 maximum price tag. In addition, superintendent Kuzniewski wanted students to have Microsoft Office experience, since that’s what the majority of today’s jobs require. When vendors presented their offerings, the Dell Latitude 13 education series fit the bill. Beisman says the Dell Latitude 13 education series computers are working out well. Since many of the students had minimal experience with laptops before working with the Dell systems, teachers spent a lot of time in the beginning familiarizing students with charging the device, logging into the network, shutting down, and using district tools like the student information system, classroom websites, and Microsoft Word. Now, of course, the students are the pros, helping one another, as well as their teachers.

Gearing up for Classroom Use

In January, 2014,120 teachers were given Dell Latitude laptops to to use through May, well before the students received their machines. Throughout those months, teachers attended half- or full-day professional development sessions every month. Some of the sessions were taught by Beisman; others were taught by Microsoft trainers, employees from the local Microsoft Store, and community organizations. Additionally, there were after-school classes and two-week boot camps in June and August. Says Beisman, “Teachers worked with each other to figure out the best ways to use the tools. They may have felt overwhelmed at first, but we offered coaches during the summer to alleviate that.”

By the time the students received their Latitude 13 laptops in August, the teachers felt ready to begin integrating technology into their lessons.

“Our students are starting to become stakeholders in their education,” says Eileen McCormack, who teaches AP history at Morton Freshmen Center. “They are not just passively accepting the information but are more engaged. Even their posture has changed—they are sitting up taller.”

Each year, one of McCormack’s first lessons is on themes in history and how to compare topics using categories. In the past, she asked students to make instructional posters about a topic. This year, she told students they could create a poster or make a PowerPoint. Some students asked if they could use Glogster (edu.glogster.com) or Prezi (prezi.com), to which McCormack happily said, “Bring it on!” Even more thrilling, she says, was that students taught each other how to use those new tools.

McCormack’s students use their laptops to highlight and annotate, which gets them more involved in the text and leads to a deeper understanding of the material. She also encourages collaboration. “If I’m doing a lesson on a piece of text, I might show my students how to take notes and pull out vocabulary words. Then I’ll ask them to pair up and model the process.” Collaboration adds to the engagement, and McCormack says that people retain 90 percent of the material when they teach it to someone else.

Finding the Right Tool for the Right Time

As much as the teachers are embracing 1:1, they are also aware—thanks to the quality and quantity of PD they received—that you don’t always need to use a computer. As McCormack says, “I want it to be an authentic learning experience for them. We have to use it as a learning tool when it makes sense.”

A successful 1:1 program starts with providing devices and access, but that’s just the beginning. “We have to teach students how to use the abundance of information that’s now available and to be educated consumers of that information,” says Kuzniewski. “We also need to teach them to be good stewards of their own identity.” At the same time, he stresses that no one instructional tool is a panacea. For every assignment, you must find the right tool to get it done.

“The 1:1 is right for our students and they deserve it,” says Kuzniewski. “Our Board has shown a lot of courage and leadership. I’m extremely proud of my teachers and our children. We have a place where kids can succeed and learn.”

At A Glance: 

The district includes four campuses that house 8,700 students (grades 9-12) and 408 teachers

96% qualify for free/reduced-price lunch

Infrastructure: 

All 2,100 freshmen students and their teachers have Latitude 13 education series laptops from Dell. Each year, starting in August 2014, the district will hand out laptops to the incoming freshmen class. In four years, the entire high school district will be 1:1.

For the last five years, there has been wireless connectivity throughout the district. Before the 1:1 began, the district added wifi to the cafeterias, outside areas, and stadiums. Currently, they are putting in fiber to increase their bandwidth.

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