Punxsy’s model tech program attracts curious districts for insight

PUNXSUTAWNEY — The Punxsutawney Area School District’s use of technology — specifically its one-to-one, or 1:1 program, in which all students in grades nine through 12 are issued laptop computers for use at school and home — has attracted enough praise and recognition that it has become a model for other districts to study.

And Thursday, representatives from two different districts — Penns Valley Area School District, Centre County, and the Forest City Regional (FCR) School District, serving students in portions of Wayne, Susquehanna and Lackawanna counties — listened to a presentation from Punxsy administrators and technical advisors about how their use of the Classrooms for the Future (CFF) evolved into the 21st Century Learning Initiative, and thus, the 1:1 program.

The Punxsy district’s efforts were recently recognized by the state Department of Education and showcased in a documentary, in which Superintendent Dr. Keith Wolfe said the program has “leveled the playing field” for the district’s varied population of students.

“All students should have a chance to learn, regardless of their background,” Wolfe said.

Tim Snyder, the technology coach in the FCR district, said his district has been examining the 1:1 concept for about four years, and learned about Punxsy’s concept at the annual PETE&C (Pennsylvania Educational Technology Expo & Conference) this past February in Hershey.

The FRC district has already used the CFF model, and now looks to leap into the next level of the 1:1 concept.

Also, Sherri Connell, assistant superintendent in the Penns Valley School District, said her district would like to launch a pilot 1:1 program next year, and actually learned about Punxsy’s model through a representative of Apple Computing, which has served Punxsy’s needs throughout the program.

High School Principal David London said it was former district administrator Brenda Brinker who first brought the CFF concept to the attention of Wolfe’s predecessor, Dr. J. Thomas Frantz. From there, the district applied for — and received — its first CFF grant in the amount of $507,235, the eighth-highest award, for the 2006-07 school year.

With those funds, the district equipped 13 core subject classrooms and, as London said, kept its eye on the ball.

“Right off the bat, we had a vision of where this would go right away,” he said.

For the 2007-08 school year, the district received a $300,00 CFF grant, equipped an additional 17 core subject classrooms and began to explore the 1:1 concept, eventually planning for its implementation during 2008-09, when it received a $30,000 grant and equipped the remaining core subject classrooms.

Planning continued during the 2009-10 school year for the 1:1 launch, which occurred in January 2010, when students received their first laptops, instead of being somewhat confined to the cart-only computers used only in class.

London said the district chose to distribute those first laptops at the mid-point of the school year, to see how it would go.

Last year was the first full year of the 1:1 program, which also saw all classroom at PAHS and PAMS equipped as smart classrooms. And during the 2011-12 school year, smart classrooms have extended to Punxsy’s elementary schools.

“We reached out to a lot of community groups, our state senator, Joe Scarnati, (state Rep.) Sam Smith and the county commissioners,” London said. “We did everything we could do so everybody knew what the program was about and how we could advance this technology in the classroom.”
A summer tech camp operated by CFF coach Melissa Fedigan and teacher Matt Curry attracts teachers so well, that sometimes, they adjust their vacation schedules to attend.

“We build tools for the school year, and design tools for the classrooms,” Fedigan said, while Curry added that these projects produce one of the best tools for those who attend the camp: Collaboration.

Of course, there have been concerns, from both parents and members of the Punxsutawney Area School Board, about this new concept that can, in fact, change rapidly.

London said teachers may use the computers for in-school projects that students may then work on at home with their laptops. At times, parents found that their children working on their own laptops would free up the home computer, he said.

Also, the first year that the laptops were issued, about 30 students’ parents prohibited them from bringing the machines home. That number was cut almost in half after the first month, London said, once parents saw how their students were using them.

Wolfe said at times, some members of the school board have been the toughest audience to whom to sell the idea, because they may have heard comments from parents who allegedly witness their students playing games or surfing the Web on the machines, assuming that the laptops are tools for a glorified study hall.

Yes, students play games and surf the Web with their laptops, but many games and certain Web sites — including those for e-mail — are blocked. But 99 students also said in surveys that their teachers use technology in the classroom on a regular basis — so it’s not all fun, games and Web surfing.

Student testimonials also indicate that they accomplish a great deal of school work at home, learn how to use modern and evolving technology, and learn skills that will help them in the technological world of higher education.

Wolfe said the administration must also justify the expenses of the program — including repairs, which are, admittedly, the biggest drawback — especially if state budget levels are tight. But he also said to halt the program would be a detriment to the progress made already.

Kids will be kids, as well, and may or may not take the best care of the equipment.

Gerald Gigliotti, director of technology and Learning Services, said most students are unlikely to just toss their own cell phones against the wall, because they know how much that phone means to them.

The same can be said about the laptops, he said: Creating a world in which the need for the laptops means they’ll take care of them.

London added that the district has an “acceptable use” policy “covering pretty much everything here, and the policy about textbooks applies to the laptops.”

He also acknowledged that he performs random laptop searches to make sure students are using them for their intended purpose. Students whose laptops are found to have inappropriate material or illegal applications/files are dealt with appropriately — discipline that could entail suspension or, on rare occasions, expulsion.

Parents are also encouraged to monitor their children’s usage of the laptops, London said, and at times, parents have suggested that their son or daughter shouldn’t use the machine for a period of time, simply because they know they are not using it for the intended purposes.

Another drawback that both students and staff agreed upon is when they forget to save their work to the server, because if they save only to the desktop — i.e., only the laptop’s hard drive — a lot of work could be gone forever or difficult to retrieve if there’s a glitch with the machine.

As for how teachers use the technology, biology teacher Louise Maine said she prefers teaching students in small, individualized groups as opposed to the lecture format. Therefore, the work between her and the students becomes more personalized.

Math teacher Jason Grusky said when the CFF concept began, there were “a lot of bells and whistles,” but now that it has evolved, “the teachers are ready to get down to business.”

Jonna Irvin, who teaches special education, said she has seen her students disengaged or not communicating in class. But as they are broken into teams to work on their laptops, even students who say nothing in class are communicating ideas to others in the group, and their ability to use the machines gives them confidence they perhaps didn’t have before in school.

Not every teacher in the district has fully embraced the technology, London said, but by the same token, there are also long-serving teachers — used to lectures and blackboards — who have jumped on board whole-heartedly.

Students who talked with the guests said they “can’t imagine” not having their laptops, and one student also noted that they can help in the case of absence, as she is helping a vacationing student in her AP Calculus class — a course which is tough to miss, or the student runs the risk of getting swamped — by simply pointing her laptop toward the teacher so the student who is away can watch, take notes and not return to school running behind in the course.

John Kopicki, superintendent of the FRC School District, said despite some drawbacks to the idea, and how students might use or abuse the equipment, “We should put more faith in kids. I think most kids do the right thing.”

Wolfe said Punxsy staff has also presented a program on the 21st Century Learning Initiative and 1:1 for representatives from the Blairsville-Saltzburg School District.