Friday, Feb. 1, 2008 | Small hands flock into the air, fluttering before the oversized computer screen. Teacher Maria Vazquez picks a first-grader from the crowd. She bounds up to the interactive board, takes the stylus from Vazquez’ outstretched hand, and neatly highlights a few Spanish words, touching the tool to the 6-foot-wide screen. There’s no ink, no paper, no projectors — just the wide, kid-level touch screen, upon which every child’s eyes are fixed.

With that screen, Vazquez can conjure up images from the web, play videos, display textbook pages, give and grade quizzes, craft diagrams and broker chats with kids from afar; she can swap notes and lessons with fellow teachers, track students’ answers and how fast they respond. Hours spent grading are a thing of the past. Kids are rapt before the glowing screen.

High Poverty, High Tech, High Scores

  • The Issue: Half of classrooms in National School District now use interactive whiteboards, a flashy, interactive tool that helped boost test scores last year.
  • What It Means: Educators say the technology is especially useful with English-language learners, who rely on images to link words to concepts.
  • The Bigger Picture: National City schools are achieving high despite the odds, with some of the highest math and English scores among demographically similar schools statewide.

“They call it the magic board,” Vazquez said. “You wouldn’t know they don’t have computers at home!”

Magic is now standard at El Toyon Elementary School in National City, where Vazquez teaches bilingual classes for first and second grade students. Here, every classroom boasts an interactive whiteboard; across the National School District, half of classrooms got the tools this year.

National, a district with a history of achieving against the odds, has adopted the technology more widely than any other school district in San Diego County. It’s an unlikely Mecca for high-tech, a school where educators say most children go home to play with Nintendos, not PCs. Ninety percent of its students are from low-income households; nearly 70 percent are still learning English.

But here, the technology has yielded results, according to an early study. Test scores ticked upward in the high-tech classrooms, where 5 percent more students passed state tests compared to their less-wired counterparts. Teachers report that students are more attentive and excited, and go absent less frequently.

National City’s success points to an emerging focus for the technology: Bringing second-language students up to speed. English-language learners are the core challenge for National City schools, said Superintendent Dennis Doyle, and interactive whiteboards offer new ways to coax them toward success. Eighteen teachers tested the tools districtwide last year. This year, more took on the technology, with 20 boards in use at El Toyon alone.

“It’s like … the Wii,” Doyle said. “Everyone wanted it. You didn’t have to advertise.”

Interactive whiteboards aren’t new. British schools embraced the boards four years ago, pouring nearly $50 million in government funds into the technology. Proponents tout the boards as a way to keep fickle students engaged, and to cater to different learners with multi-sensory lessons. Yet researchers have been skeptical, noting that achievement hasn’t surged as the boards crop up in British classrooms.

But Britain is a world away from National City, where educators say the whiteboards are ideal for English-language learners. The tool is new to National City, but the methods aren’t: lots of images and lots of interaction. To explain a word in English, Vazquez can pull a picture from the web; to keep students from tuning out, she sprinkles her lessons with quick quizzes, and invites students to the board to move objects and words onscreen.

During one class, kids read aloud from the screen about how orange juice is made, then match terms to definitions in Spanish. Jumping up to the screen, a first grader drags a phrase — “materia prima” (raw material) — to its definition. When a child moves a digital magnifying glass over the word, a photo appears. Next, the students recap the story, placing summary sentences in order.

To test the students on the passage, Vazquez hands out egg-shaped handsets arrayed with lettered buttons. They choose a multiple-choice answer to her question, and press the right button. A graph of their answers — how many chose A, how many chose B, and how quickly — instantly appears onscreen. Colorful and ever-moving, the screen holds their attention, even with a cluster of visitors in the room. Students with shaky English, often shy to speak up, clamor to answer.

“Even if they’re wrong, they get excited,” said Gair Humiston, an El Toyon teacher who works with special education students.

Interactive boards aren’t a magic bullet, educators caution. Like other technologies, they depend largely on how — and if — teachers use them. Past efforts to digitize U.S. classrooms have fizzled, lacking support from teachers, who need training and technical support, said B.J. Afeman, a project specialist in the San Diego County Office of Education. After computers did little to boost scores in the 1990s, many schools are wary of placing their hopes in technology, especially with a budget crisis looming, Afeman said.

“You can’t just buy a laptop and expect kids to get smarter,” said Afeman, who worked closely with National City on the project. “National did it differently.”

National is known for doing things differently — and well. Statewide, its math scores top all other school districts with similar percentages of low-income and English-learning students; its English scores rank fourth. In 2004, two National elementary schools were tapped as exceptionally high-performing schools by Springboard Schools, an Oakland nonprofit that analyzes school success. Its test scores regularly rank it among schools that are far wealthier, whiter and more English-savvy.

Computers are plentiful here compared to most schools in San Diego County, with nearly one computer for every three students. But the key is how computers are used in National City schools, Doyle said — not how many there are.

Teachers decide when and how to use the boards, and are key to whether the lessons flourish or flop. Learning to use the technology takes time, as does crafting special lessons. It took Vazquez six hours to assemble her half-hour class about orange juice. Now, however, she and other El Toyon teachers can always use that lesson, pulling it up year after year.

Doyle has wisely tied technology to measurable goals, instead of heralding the technology itself, said Bruce Braciszewski, executive director of the Classroom of the Future Foundation. National also pushed professional development via the whiteboards. Teachers can trade ideas, archive their charts, and discuss individual students’ progress through the system.

“Teaching is no longer that job you do all by yourself,” Doyle said.

Though the whiteboards are also being used in some Julian and Poway schools, no other San Diego County district has adopted them as enthusiastically as National — the most disadvantaged district to take the tools on, Braciszewski said. National’s efforts have attracted attention from similar districts. South Bay Union School District, centered in Imperial Beach, is eyeing the technology, but nervous about the price, especially as California aims budget cuts at schools.

Using the boards, “we could bring classes to life,” said Janet Wraight, South Bay’s director of information management systems. “But we really have to look at our funding.”

Chris Oram, National’s technology director, estimated the systems’ total cost at $500,000. Each board costs roughly $7,000 including pre-made programs and egg-shaped controllers for students, Oram said. Individual schools pay for the boards, usually out of federal and state funds allocated to help low-income students and English-language learners. Each National City school receives between $250,000 and $500,000 annually in such funds.

National elementary schools also pay for three full-time employees to troubleshoot and train teachers to use the boards — a $250,000 cost, Oram estimated.

Laptops are the next step, Oram said. To the northeast, Lemon Grove School District has put a laptop-like device called an e-Pad in the hands of every middle school student and provided free high-speed Internet to their homes. Compared to interactive whiteboards, which cater to groups, laptops allow teachers to tailor lessons individually and free students to do independent work.

“The key value here is … we extend the learning outside of school time,” said Darryl LaGace, Lemon Grove’s chief technology officer.

They’re more effective, Braciszewski said, but they’re also more expensive. Lemon Grove’s e-Pads cost $1,000 each, and have a seven-year lifespan. National City can’t afford them, Oram said, pricing an affordable laptop at $200.

Still, the glowing boards are transforming National City classrooms, how teachers teach, and even how students learn. Language arts specialist Lisa Anderson shied from the boards at first; now, she said, she can’t teach without them. A familiar lesson about Sweden’s Ice Hotel, taught year after year with a picture book, is now a multimedia lesson with videos, sound clips, links to newspaper articles, multiple-choice quizzes and a Venn diagram where students can write and drag their answers to the right place onscreen.

If a student asks a question she can’t answer, she said, it’s easy to look it up online. If they don’t know a word, pictures to illustrate it are a click away.

Kids, in turn, have adapted quickly to the technology, correcting Anderson when she hits the wrong button. But “digital natives” such as the National City kids may stumble later, when they graduate to middle schools that lack the technology, Afeman said.

“You run the risk of disenfranchising students,” Afeman said. “Suddenly, they go from this environment that’s geared to them and their digital ways, to this environment that isn’t centered around them. … It’s a challenge.”

Doyle’s hope is that other schools take National City’s lead and vault into the 21st century, instead of forcing high-tech students to step back.

“It’s a shift in paradigm,” Humiston said. “We’re just beginning to tap the potential of all the things we can do.”

Please contact Emily Alpert directly with your thoughts, ideas, personal stories or tips. Or send a letter to the editor.

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