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Lighthouse Schools Working Out the Digital Kinks

About two years ago, Baltimore County officials announced a plan to provide all students with a computer and other high-tech devices. This year, they are testing that plan in ten Lighthouse schools where first through third graders are using computers daily in their lessons.

One of those schools is Halstead Academy, in Parkville. Five years ago, Halstead was a failing school with lots of discipline problems. Today it’s a turnaround school and students have done consistently well on standardized exams. But the missing link is that many Halstead students don’t own computers, which is why principal Jennifer Mullenax applied for the Lighthouse program. “In order to give our students access and make them globally competitive, we needed to do something different to reach past these four walls and this community,” Mullenax said. “A lot of our boys and girls are restricted to our community, so this opens up the world to them, which they need to have.”

The school system has supplied all first through third grade Lighthouse students with laptops that convert to tablets. The exception is the new Mays Chapel Elementary, where all students have computers. Mullenax says Halstead had to be wired for Wi-Fi access and classrooms were rearranged to accommodate the computer-driven instruction. “A lot of teachers have given up desks and a lot of the time you walk in, you won't know where the teacher is because she's working with a small group here or with a small group of kids on the carpet over here, so the space looks different now,” she said.

This summer, Lighthouse school teachers were trained on how to use the computers and include them in lessons. They also receive monthly training at school through a new partnership between the district and the Discovery Channel’s Discovery Education division. Halstead teachers said they spent most of the first week of school teaching students how to log on to their computers and enter passwords.  A daunting task, especially if you're teaching first graders as Shelby Wood is. “It’s definitely something you have to break down step-by-step, but as long as it's broken down enough, explained and modeled for them, it's something they're capable of doing,” she said.

First graders have the same username but they don’t need passwords. However, second and third graders have individual usernames and passwords. Some used note cards taped on their desks with instructions on how to use the shift, spacebar and other computer keys. Several of third-grade teacher Mandy Slaysman’s students needed help in logging onto their computers. “Having all those log-ons and passwords are a lot and having their typing be accurate but I can already tell that their engagement is so much higher and they're willing to be patient because they want to use them as often as they can,” she said.

Third-grader Nehemyah Jacobs fits that bill. He loves searching for information on his laptop and although he’s never used a computer to do assignments he said he likes it better than using paper and pencil. “When you use paper and pencil, you gotta write down everything and with electronics, you just type in and press search and it will search for you and you can save it too,” he said excitedly.

Halstead students also blog daily, a first-time experience for many of them. They write short blogs after most lessons that their classmates, teachers and parents can see and comment on. “Blogs teach students how to put their best work out there, so they're more cognizant of how they're writing, what voice they use in writing, what their punctuation looks like and grammar because they have a bigger audience,” Mullenax said.

But the Wi-Fi and computers are not just a game changer for students. Teachers are using them to individualize instruction more. Second grade teacher Angela Moskunas had some of her students matching up shapes on their tablets, while others worked with hand-held objects in a nearby small group. They'll switch up later. Moskunas said the computers give the students more freedom. “I step back and am more of a facilitator of their learning than being a direct instructor,” she said. “It gives the students more of an opportunity to be responsible for their learning, which they're not used to but I see a huge improvement with the devices.”

Some teachers let students record themselves reading to see if they're going too fast, too slow or mispronouncing words. Others teachers record lessons for students to listen to on their computers, allowing the teacher to work on other projects. Shelby Wood videotaped her first graders talking about a book they read. “A first grader is going to be a lot more oral at this point than getting it on paper, so if I'm giving them another tool to share with me what they understood from something. I get more than the three words they can write now,” she said.

School officials were quick to point out that the new technology is not replacing traditional methods, but they are using fewer books and worksheets to give students more creative ways to show they're getting it. This sounds good to Abby Beytin, president of the county's teacher's union, but she still has concerns, one being the Internet's reliability. “If the system goes down, how long will it take to get it back up?” Beytin said. “I'm a Lighthouse school, students are learning on the devices and no one has Internet. What are the safeguards for teachers and students so they can continue learning?”

Halstead's teachers say they have back up plans if the Internet goes down. But Beytin also fears that with the new Common Core standards in place, a new on line grading and report card system, coupled with the Lighthouse program duties, the teachers may be overwhelmed. “The technology does put another burden and another layer on teachers. I think of all the complaints that I hear from teachers it is we don't have the time to do everything and Lighthouse schools are the same. How do we find the time to do all of this?” Beytin said.

Halstead's teachers often call on their on-site technical resource person Nicole Fiorito. She believes computers will lessen teachers' workloads. “They can create quizzes that would self-grade, it helps to provide immediate feedback and parents can get that feedback as well,” Fiorito said. “I think it will have the potential to ease some of those stresses that teachers feel in regards to grading, in terms of planning and customizing instruction.” 

To be sure, there have been glitches, but teacher Mandy Slaysman is optimistic about the Lighthouse program. “Once the kinks and bugs are worked out, it will be wonderful,” Slaysman said. “It's a lot to do but it's so collaborative. I wouldn't say I'm not feeling any extra pressure, but I know that I have people to help me and we don't have to be perfect right now.”

County officials plan to extend the Lighthouse program to fourth and fifth grades at all of the pilot schools next year, then evaluate it before deciding whether to expand it to other schools.