March 29, 2007 | Four years ago, when Linda Taggart arrived at Point Loma’s Correia Middle School to serve as the school’s new principal, she had some ambitious goals on her agenda.

A fresh coat of paint wouldn’t do for Correia, she reasoned. Taggart planned to transform her classrooms into user-friendly learning centers for today’s plugged-in kids.

Correia’s school meetings became bustling forums where parents and teachers discussed how technology might improve education. “This wasn’t even on the school district’s radar,” Taggart says. “The schools are all thinking about No Child Left Behind.”

But Taggart saw a direct correlation between lackluster school performance and old-fashioned classrooms and teaching methods she encountered.

Then Taggart met Matt Spathas, a local entrepreneur and father of four school-age children in the neighborhood. Not only did Spathas share Taggart’s passion for education technology, he became an unrelenting champion for her cause.

Together the two have taken the school through the wrenching adaptation to the technological revolution that much of the world — even the students at the school — had long ago already experienced. Now, children at Correia are producing multimedia presentations. There are 400 laptops at the schools disposal, allowing teachers to administer quizzes and check up on homework assignments all through the Internet.

None of it was possible a few years ago.

With the support of the school district, the library and Correia’s teaching staff, Taggart and Spathas christened their effort Project Light Speed.

“Technology inspires creativity. And we’re now technology rich at this school,” Taggart says. On her own computer she pulls up a student-made video called “The Vision.”

When seventh graders enter Correia, they get to watch “The Vision” during an orientation. The production lifts its style from music videos, skit comedy and TV ads. It is surprisingly watchable — featuring songs by teen-friendly bands like the Postal Service and silly riffs on Target and Subway commercials. The students who appear in it sound off with genuine enthusiasm about all the stuff their school has to offer.

Many of Project Light Speed’s ideas get tangled up in the jargon of education technology: “delivery system” and “digital literacy” make for satisfying-sounding buzzwords, but what do they really mean?

It’s simple: Teach the kids using the tools they know. Embrace technology.

National education expert Alan November — whom both Taggart and Spathas namedrop often — describes it in his blog as bridging the gap between “digital natives” (the kids) and “digital immigrants” (everyone else). Natives grasp new technology instinctively; immigrants need to get up to speed. The idea is not to teach technology, but to use technology to foster valuable lifelong skills, such as critical thinking and creativity.

Podcasts for Eighth Graders

On a laptop in her office, Taggart browses to Correia’s website and clicks on podcasts. Out of the few dozen listed, she selects the latest from “Mr. G” — science teacher Sean Gardinier. His eighth-grade students recently worked in pairs to build balloon-powered model cars. They then used audio- and video-editing software to present their findings.

The segments range from the amateurish — a still photo accompanied by shaky voiceover — to the polished — pieces that incorporate video and engaging commentary about what went right and wrong with the experiment. Taggart beams with pride as she clicks from project to project.

“We have students teaching students,” she says. “You can listen to a teacher, but peers are more important than anyone in this age group.”

Project-based collaborative learning is key to Light Speed. The first thing Taggart did when she arrived at Correia was to replace individual desks with long or circular tables.

Using her school’s discretionary funds, she also upgraded from whiteboards to laptops. Individual classrooms now come equipped with wireless-enabled computers connected to DocuCam projectors. The school also has 20 computer carts (each with 20 laptops), three computer labs and a student-to-computer ratio of two-to-one.

“These students are the ‘Container Generation,’” Taggart says. She cites Sony’s PlayStation as one example of a container: A component from which content is delivered. Instant messaging, iPods, blogs, social networking sites like MySpace and Facebook, and video sharing sites like YouTube are also hugely popular with the junior high and high school sets.

“The containers are always changing,” she adds. “Kids adapt to that. So should the curriculum.”

But will recording podcasts and making videos really get kids more interested in geometry theorems and grammar?

Spathas believes it’s a great start.

Trying to Catch Up

At his downtown high-rise office, looking a little weary after a full workday, Spathas clicks through a slick PowerPoint presentation he created for Light Speed demos and fundraising. It’s packed with alarming statistics about high drop-out rates and low test scores. Graphs and pie charts demonstrate just how far American students have fallen behind their counterparts in countries like China and India.

Spathas says he worries that his children — the youngest now a seventh grader at Correia, the oldest a freshman in college — won’t be prepared for the increasingly competitive global job market of the 21st century. Nor will their peers. And that wouldn’t bode well for the U.S. economy either.

Technology is Spathas’ daily business. He is a partner in the IT-savvy commercial real estate firm Sentre Partners and the CEO of Bandwidth Now, which treats bandwidth as a standard utility and turns commercial buildings into ready-to-go “next generation” environments.

To stay in the game, Spathas says he must continually educate himself. “I’m scared enough to keep learning. I can’t be complacent,” he says. “We need to make the shift from students having to learn to wanting to learn.”

And the best way to do that is to engage them with relevant tools and subject matter.

Free online tutoring, another component of Project Light Speed, is currently available seven days a week — not just to Correia students, but for all San Diego schools. This is largely Spathas’ doing, though he modestly deflects credit for it. Taggart, the principal, says Spathas convinced the school district and city to finance a year-long test run of the service, which pairs accredited tutors with students. The instant-message platform features a virtual whiteboard with an easy-to-use drawing toolkit.

A Digital Classroom

Back at Correia on a recent day, teacher Keri Peach’s midday English class works in the school’s Humanities Lab, a paperless classroom in the back of the library. Every pint-size kid sits behind a gleaming white flat-screen iMac. They whisper excitedly when Taggart walks in.

“Guys, some of you are still taking the test,” Ms. Peach warns. “The rest of you should be working on your e-portfolios.”

On this particular afternoon, the survey software is buggy, but usually teachers can digitally administer, grade and return quizzes to students. Timesavers like this allow them more time to interact with their students.

A few students show Taggart their e-portfolios: digital records of their schoolwork that they’ll take along to high school. They’re encouraged to personalize these presentations. One chatty girl eagerly discusses her portfolio’s cheerleading theme. The freckle-faced boy next to her, who snickers when an adult mentioned MySpace, has plastered his with skateboarding photos.

Another student demonstrates Correia’s digital lockers, where students can save and store their homework. It’s as quick as finding the file and clicking upload, but he complains that the transfer takes too long. He plucks a tiny USB drive from his keyboard. “But it’s OK, ’cause I can use this instead.”

Asked if multimedia projects and cool computer gear make schoolwork easier, several students chime in unanimously: “Yeah!”

Parents benefit from Light Speed, as well. From the school’s website, they can subscribe to RSS feeds and check on their children’s assignments, grades and attendance in the “Parent Connect” section.

Taggart and Spathas agree that these are baby steps.

Both envision classrooms where the lecture-and-listen model is replaced by hands-on mentorship. All factual-based learning — multiplication tables, for example — could be taught through shared online content, which would free teachers to move about the room and work individually with students.

Kids would carry laptops instead of paper textbooks, which would be replaced by electronic texts cross-referenced with hyperlinks inviting students to delve deeper into interesting subjects.

And students would get to take these laptops home, where they would all have broadband access. (Spathas is currently lobbying the city and a local cable provider to provide free service to low-income students.)

None of these goals seem as far off as they did four years ago.

Back in the library, Marcia Abbott introduces herself as the school’s “I-brarian.”

“Ibrary” is a term Spathas thought up in the shower. It means “information library,” and he believes it’s a more accurate way to describe a modern library, where books aren’t the only source of information. (Ibrary.com is also his website, where he catalogues education technology references.)

Knowing how to identify and interpret these different sources of information, Spathas says, is integral to digital literacy. Today’s kids don’t rely on books the way previous generations did.

As if to prove this point, Abbott asks a table of seventh-grade girls if they’d like to take some questions from a reporter. They giggle and agree.

The question: “What is the Dewey Decimal System?” The girls look at each other blankly until one responds gamely: “Uh, it kind of sounds familiar maybe?”

They have no idea, even when Abbott drops a few obvious hints.

“Students don’t really use that anymore,” says Taggart, out of hearing reach. “We’re teaching them what they do need to know.”

Light Speed isn’t exclusive to Correia. Since its launch, five of the 10 Point Loma schools have gotten on board to some extent, particularly Dana Middle School and Point Loma High.

Bobbie Samilson, the principal of Point Loma High, praises the program. She says that her students have access to a lot more computer gear these days. (Spathas, she notes, donated money out of pocket to help purchase laptops.) Samilson also speaks enthusiastically about the digital lockers and Parent Connect.

“There’s an art to teaching,” she points out. “You have to figure out how to engage the kids and do everything we can do to make them more excited about learning. Light Speed has been very important in changing education, not limiting it. When a kid says they’re bored, we now have more options than ever before.”

AnnaMaria Stephens is a San Diego-based freelance writer.

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