Bernice Hart Elementary School
Located in a light industrial area on the northeast side of Austin, Texas, Bernice Hart Elementary School opened in August 1998 with 510 students. By August 2000 the school enrollment had increased to 650 students, 84% of whom qualify for free or reduced-price meals. The majority of Hart students are bussed in from a trailer park or from subsidized apartment complexes that are not within walking distance of the school. The student mobility rate is a staggering 40%.
When Claudia Tousek took on the job of principal for the new school, she was well aware of these challenges. But she believed that high expectations coupled with structural supports and staff development could enable both students and teachers to succeed. Early results indicate she was right. Of the 15 schools in northeast Austin with similar demographics, Hart had the highest percentage of students passing a combined math, reading, and writing assessment in the 1998-99 school year. Hart was selected for a Texas Successful School Award for having some of the highest scores in the state, compared to schools with similar demographics.
How was such success achieved? First, because Hart was a new school, the principal was able to select administrators and teachers who were committed to using technology and a constructivist approach to instruction. Among those joining Tousek were two former colleagues--projects coordinator Gayle Gaston, a U.S. Department of Education Christa McAuliffe Fellow, and technology coordinator Steve Banks, an Apple Distinguished Educator. Their expertise provided the Hart staff with ongoing support as they learned new administrative and instructional uses for technology. A rigorous interview process helped staff the school with teachers who exhibited an aptitude for creative approaches to learning, as measured by the Teacher Attitude Inventory, the Measure of Innovativeness, and the Attitudes Towards Computer Technologies assessments.
Second, months before Hart opened its doors to students, its core group of administrators convened a planning team to develop a vision for the school and to design a learning environment to support the vision. Included were University of Texas at Austin (UT) faculty member, Dr. Judi Harris, and two staff members of the Southwest Educational Development Lab (SEDL). This collaboration yielded a comprehensive program for professional development called The Future Is Now--A Model for Creating Effective Learning Environments. The goals of the program were to:
Third, the school was organized into four "halls" of approximately 160 Pre-K through 5th grade students and teachers to counter the alienation often felt by children who change schools frequently. Each classroom was then equipped with at least two networked workstations with direct connection to the Internet and e-mail. This equipment was part of a state-of-the-art technology infrastructure that included various software programs, CD-ROMs, VCR's, laser printers, televisions, camcorders, scanners, LCD projectors, digital and 35mm cameras, cable TV, classroom telephones with voice mail, and a radio station broadcasting to the neighborhood.
Once the school year started, all teachers participated in weekly vertical team/grade-level meetings. Strategies and ideas were shared at campus professional development sessions. Constant communication was maintained via hundreds of e-mail messages among Hart staff, technology trainers at SEDL, and the UT Cohort and their professors.
Dr. Harris served as a liaison between university faculty and staff interested in conducting research studies that arose out of the needs of the Hart staff. Dr. Paul Resta, Director of UT's Learning Technology Center, sought Hart School for a field placement site for interns/student teachers in the College of Education Literacy and Technology cohort.
Hart was one of six schools selected to participate in an initiative funded through the U.S. Department of Education and implemented by the Technology Assistance Program at SEDL. Called Applying Technology to Restructuring and Learning, it supported teachers as they moved away from traditional modes of instruction. Formal professional development sessions and individual assistance in planning, problem solving, and technology use were provided both on site and on-line by SEDL staff and the Hart co-developers. In addition, team teaching with a teacher and a co-developer or SEDL staff was conducted.
Over the course of two years, 72 hours of professional development were designed and conducted by SEDL staff and codevelopers Gayle Gaston and Steve Banks. Hart principal Claudia Tousek demonstrated her commitment to this program by attending all professional development sessions, where teachers participated in a model constructivist learning experience supported by technology, guided reflection, and the development of classroom activities. Teachers also presented lessons or units they had developed over the school year. A Technology Skills Self-Assessment administered to all teacher participants prior to the first SEDL training session, and again at the end of the 1998-1999 school year, showed a marked increase in teachers' experience with particular technologies.
Hart has also explored the use of technology to assist in administrative decision making. Relational database applications developed by Banks and Gaston allow teachers, administrators, and support staff access to several networked databases:
According to the 1998-99 TAAS, schools with a passing rate below 45% were rated as Low Performing, those from 45% to 79% as Acceptable, those from 80% to 89% as Recognized, and those 90% and above as Exemplary. Hart's passing rates for the 1999-2000 year fell in the top two categories: reading 80.3%, math 86.4%, and writing 95.9%. Critical factors in this success include the strong instructional leadership of the principal and the support provided by the technology and projects coordinators at the school.