Maine School Administrative District #11
Walk through the schools in Maine's School Administrative District #11 (MSAD #11), and you'll see second graders using HyperStudio software to create multi-media science slideshows; middle school teachers reading the minutes of a committee meeting posted online; ninth graders giving Power Point presentations for their "Career Essentials" class; and twelfth graders working toward their certification as network associates through the Cisco Networking Academy. Technology is an integral part of education in this district in central Maine; it has improved the efficiency of school management and had a major impact on how, as well as what, students learn.
The schools of MSAD #11--serving the towns of Gardiner, West Gardiner, Pittston, and Randolph--have not always been a model for educational technology. When Jack Mara left his post as principal of Miller Elementary School in 1994 to become Assistant Superintendent for the district, he knew he had his work cut out for him. His new district had been a bustling blue-collar community of shoe and textile factories, but over the years most of the industries had left, dragging the tax base of the area into the lowest fifth in the state and leaving few job opportunities for new high school graduates. Furthermore, a number of parents in the district were concerned that their children were not receiving the education they needed; Gardiner area schools received some 50 requests a year from parents who wanted to move their children to another district. However, the district was also filled with committed teachers and administrators, as well as concerned community members, all seeking to improve the education their students received. For Mr. Mara, who quickly rose from Assistant Superintendent to Superintendent, one key response to these problems--and one way to direct the energies and talents of these educators and community members--was the strategic integration of technology into the curriculum and daily operations of his schools.
As a high school English teacher and newspaper advisor in the 1970's, Mara had caught a glimpse of how technology could open doors for students at all levels. He noticed that working on the student newspaper--one of the first in New England to be created on computers--not only challenged high-achieving students but also engaged previously low-achieving students, who were excited to see their words on screen, and later, in print. "Kids who otherwise had very little interest in writing were all of a sudden taking great pride in what they wrote and great pride in putting a paper together," he remembers. A few years later, Mara watched his five-year old son, who previously had shown very little interest in reading, decipher the words on a computer screen in order to create his own on-screen designs. These initial experiences made it clear to Mara that technology could be a valuable tool in motivating and teaching students. As principal of Miller Elementary School, he also came to see its value as a resource for school management. Once he began to work at the district level in MSAD #11 and consult with local business leaders, Mara became convinced of another important role for technology in the schools: the preparation of students for the modern workforce.
This three-tiered vision of technology integration helped to guide the work of teachers and administrators at the district, but they needed more than just vision. First, they needed money. In 1994, none of the schools in the Gardiner area district were wired for Internet access and none had enough computers or up-to-date software for wide-scale student and teacher use. Furthermore, the district was among the poorest in the state. Despite this financial challenge, however, the people of the community pulled together to help equip their schools with the latest technology. Using materials donated from local businesses, Mara and a team of teachers, administrators, and other community members volunteered numerous hours for little or no money to wire all the schools in the district. Some members of the team also helped him write grants to fund new hardware, software, and professional development. Now the district's technological infrastructure and equipment are maintained by a district technician, district technology director, middle school integration specialist, and high school video production teacher, as well as technologically proficient teachers, parent volunteers, and high school students.
Once the development of its technological infrastructure was underway, the district also needed to build the technological skills and commitment of its staff. While a number of teachers and administrators in Mara's district already viewed technology as a useful tool for improving student learning, others saw computers in the school as distractions from real education, too inaccessible or unreliable to spend valuable time learning about. Changing these attitudes has been a gradual process, possible largely because of the persistence of committed administrators and the concrete examples of effective technology integration offered by teacher leaders like Debra Butterfield--who uses the laptops provided by a statewide initiative to ensure that her seventh graders receive an engaging and technologically rich education aligned with Maine's new standards--and Megan Hennerlau, who uses software like Inspiration and HyperStudio to help her fifth graders examine complex problems and explain them in logical and graphically exciting ways. "If you have exceptional teachers who are successful using technology, but they don't have the support of administrators," Mara explains, "technology can never be fully integrated because administrators are the gatekeepers for everything."
At the Gardiner schools, administrative oversight of technology integration takes the form of both support and gentle pressure. The support begins with professional development. The district provides extensive, ongoing professional development offerings, with the assistance of the Northeast and the Islands Regional Technology in Education Consortium (NEIRTEC). NEIRTEC workshops, many of them offered online, have encouraged the collaboration of teachers and administrators and fostered the creation of numerous technology-infused lessons and units, as well as new instructional and assessment techniques. (See the story on Karen Moody's second grade classroom in the Good Models of Teaching with Technology spotlight.)
However, administrators do not simply ask their teachers to attend technology workshops and hope that these workshops will inspire new forms of teaching and learning. They also model the value of building personal technology skills--Mara is now completing his Ph.D. in Educational Technology at Nova Southeastern University--and hold teachers accountable for gradually integrating technology into their practice. Now teachers district-wide are required to create a technology goal based on NEIRTEC's "Good Models of Teaching with Technology" (GMOTT) as part of their yearly evaluation. With the help of Technology Director Terry McGuire, Middle School Integration Specialist Lisa Foster, and teacher leaders willing to share their strategies for technology integration, more and more teachers who were reluctant to experiment with technology are finding that they can meet this expectation. In fact, all the seventh grade teachers in the district recently volunteered two days of their summer vacation to participate in a professional development workshop to prepare for the new statewide laptop initiative--a sign not only of district faculty's commitment to their students but also of their sense that technology integration is a worthwhile means of enhancing learning.
According to McGuire, teachers have responded best when technology is introduced gradually into the classroom. She suggests "starting out on a smaller scale," not overwhelming teachers with big projects but helping them adjust gradually to spending time in the computer lab with their students, discovering first-hand how technology can enhance learning. Another strategy the district has found helpful is to embed technology use in the normal operations of its schools. As principal of Miller Elementary School, Jack Mara learned that if he required teachers to submit their classroom budgets on a disk instead of paper, they would learn quickly to use computers. Foster has applied a similar principle at Gardiner Regional Middle School, where an electronic communication system has helped to build a sense of community while also demonstrating to staff the usefulness of technology. She has set up a series of electronic conferences that allow teachers to share information about their teams or committees, announce events happening in the school, sign-up for time in the computer lab, request that jobs be done by the custodial staff, and express gratitude and congratulations to other staff members for tasks that they do. "It's become an expectation that people go in there and find out what's going on in the school," Foster explains, "so if you don't it comes back on you when you have missed a deadline or you don't know what's going on." She has also created a conference for homework, so teachers can post homework assignments for students and parents to access through the Web. District-wide, Web pages and e-mail are also facilitating easier communication between teachers and parents.
While developing teachers' skills and interest in technology integration is a priority for the Gardiner technology program, community partnerships have also played an important role. When he came to Gardiner, Mara found a core group of skilled teachers and administrators who shared his vision of technology integration and were willing to promote it in their schools and in the larger community. They found a community that was not only supportive of the district's technology initiatives but also quite helpful in shaping and implementing these initiatives. Local business leaders have offered advice and funding for the design of a "Career Essentials" course at the high school. Parents with technology expertise regularly volunteer their time to assist elementary school students and teachers with the use of computers. The school board has provided thoughtful guidance throughout the whole process. In fact, support for the new direction the district has taken can be felt even beyond the immediate community. Now, instead of losing 50 students a year to neighboring districts, MSAD #11 attracts 64 students from other districts, which pay their Gardiner tuition.
MSAD #11 has clearly succeeded in integrating educational technology into its classrooms. Grants have helped to maintain a state-of-the art technology infrastructure in the district. Except for the high school, all schools in the district are now equipped with ports for wireless Internet access, and thanks to a recent statewide initiative, all seventh graders and their teachers now have their own laptops. In addition to its sophisticated video production equipment, the high school is one of only a few schools in the nation to house a fully-equipped ATM (asynchronous transfer mode) lab for two-way, real time video communication and data transmission. These cutting-edge resources do not go to waste. According to Superintendent Jack Mara, the vast majority of teachers have their students use technology "weekly if not daily" to enhance their learning. The ATM lab allows Gardiner students to take courses in Japanese and American Sign Language that are broadcast from other schools in Maine and to participate with other Maine students in the production of an online literary magazine. Students at the high school, under the guidance of Video Production Teacher Rob Munzing, have won three first place awards in Panasonic's national Kid Witness News Competition in the last five years. Other students participating in the Cisco Certified Networking Academy will graduate from high school ready to work as certified network associates. For those not interested in such specialized training, the three-semester "Career Essentials" course required for all ninth- and tenth-grade students ensures that they will all be proficient users of the latest software for research, writing, and giving presentations.
MSAD #11 has earned national recognition for its success with technology integration and regional recognition for its overall improvement. Most recently, it was identified as a national leader in educational technology by the Educational Development Center (EDC) at Harvard University and was chosen to participate with EDC in a federally funded online staff development program. The high school was also moved from "warning" status with the New England Association of Secondary Schools and Colleges (NEASSC) to full accreditation, and two of its elementary schools were recognized with a "Making the Grade" award from the Maine Board of Education. Nevertheless, according to Technology Director Terry McGuire, the district still has a great deal of work to do. Teachers and students at the district are becoming increasingly adept at using technology. The next step for MSAD #11, she says, is to help guide teachers toward using it as a tool for "higher order thinking." Another challenge is to help teachers become more independent in their planning and implementation of technology-integrated lessons, relying less on technology specialists and taking advantage of more of the district's professional development offerings. McGuire and district technology mentors will also work to spread the "hotbeds of technology use" in schools and classrooms throughout the district so that all students can benefit regularly from the best learning opportunities that technology can offer. Ultimately, district and school leaders hope that teachers will continue to develop technology-rich curricula to improve students' reading, writing, and math skills as well as prepare them for the demands of the modern workplace.