New Tech school explained Program received with excitement by Seaford School teachers

By Lynn R. Parks

Dara Laws has been teaching English at Seaford High School for 15 years. And she is more excited about being there than she has ever been. The reason for her new attitude? Delaware New Tech, a new program that will kick off in the high school next year.

"This is the answer I've been looking for," Laws told about 40 teachers, administrators and citizens who attended a seminar on New Tech Monday at Seaford High School. "I can't wait for this to happen so that kids going to school now can remember high school the way that I remember high school."

Laws will be one of the instructors in Delaware New Tech, which in its first year will have just ninth- and tenth-grade students enrolled in it. When it is fully up and running, it will have about 400 students, 100 in each grade.

The school will be housed in Seaford High School and students in New Tech will have some classes and extra-curricular activities in the regular high school.

Instruction in the "school within a school" will heavily rely on technology, computers as well as cell phones and i-Pad-like devices. "Students are already on the Internet whenever they can be," Laws said. "Why shouldn't we incorporate them into the classroom and teach them how to do things the proper way and how to manage their time?"

At the start of each unit of study, students will be assigned projects that are based on real-world situations. The lessons that they learn in the unit will help them to complete their projects.

"I love projects," current Seaford Middle School teacher Gary Zoll, who like Laws will be teaching in Delaware New Tech next year, told seminar participants. "My students love projects." But he has been limited in the number of research projects that he could assign because of the few computers in the school, he said.

"We have only three computer labs and our time on them is limited," he said. "My students would always end up back in the classroom and I would have to go back to the old way of teaching, with worksheets, a textbook and lectures. My reaction when I first heard about New Tech was, in a word, 'Finally.'"

Seaford High will be one of 63 schools across the country, and the first school in Delaware, to establish a New Tech component. Both Laws and Zoll have visited current New Tech schools and have come away impressed, they said.

"I found it amazing to see the engagement of the class," Laws said. "Students were engaged in their work to a degree that I've never seen before in a school."

Laws added that the students she talked to understood state standards and how what they were learning would benefit them on state assessment tests. "Our kids don't even know what our state standards are," she said.

Laws added that students in the New Tech schools she visited respected the fact that they were in school. "It was so quiet there," she said. "There was a hum of achievement, of people working hard, just like there is in the work place. These kids were really learning."

"Did the kids look any different from our kids?" Zoll said. "No. Did they sound any different? No. But they amazed me the way they were working. They were solving problems."

Zoll admitted to drawbacks to a New Tech program. The initial work to get the program established is "overwhelming," he said. Scheduling can be a problem. "And you are separating people into groups," he added. "History has shown that doing that causes problems, can create an 'us vs. them' attitude. All of that will have to be solved."

Steve Garner, district director of accountability, assessment and technology, told the group that Seaford first took a look at New Tech in 2009, when then high school principal Clarence Davis visited a New Tech school.

"He was very excited about what he saw," Garner said.

In 2010, the district was notified that the high school was one of six under-performing schools in the state. "We knew then that we had to do something," Garner said.

That designation made the school eligible to apply for a federal school improvement grant. Last summer, the district learned that the school had been awarded a grant of $1.3 million. It was one of two schools in the state to qualify for the grant, Garner said.

Also last summer, the district completed an application with the New Tech program. Permission to establish a New Tech school was granted in November.

Garner said that the cost to the district for the New Tech program averages $123,750 a year for the first four years and $20,000 for every year after that. The federal grant money includes $500,000 for New Tech as well as $80,000 for new furniture. The district will also use part of its portion of the federal Race to the Top grant that the state received to pay for the program.

Garner offered an example of how New Tech teaching differs from traditional teaching. "In a science class, students studying minerals might research mineral pits that have been closed down due to environmental concerns, learn what minerals were mined there and why the mine was closed," he said. Making the project more complex, he added, is the fact that now, many of those same minerals are mined in China, where environmental laws are lax. And they are used in the manufacture of wind turbines, something that the United States is trying to use in energy production.

"Students would research the economic impact of relying on China for something that we are using for clean energy and then come up with a strategy comparing economic concerns vs. environmental concerns," he said. That strategy would be explained in a paper as well as in a multi-media presentation.

"This is New Tech versus the environment I learned in," Garner said. "When I was in school, I read some, took notes, maybe saw a filmstrip, did some more reading, heard a lecture and took more notes and then had a test. And that worked fine then. But today's students are different."

California-based support The Seaford School District is spending nearly a half a million dollars in four years to implement its New Tech program. After that, maintenance of the program will cost $20,000 a year. For that money, the California-based New Technology Foundation will provide:
  • Use of a project-based learning coach for the first three years that the school is open with students. This person assists with professional development and implementation strategies.
  • Use of the web-based planning and grading tool, ECHO. Students, staff and parents can assess this around the clock in order to track student projects and grades. This is the electronic engine that drives the New Tech Network.
  • Teacher access to the New Tech Network database of project-based learning units and communications with the other New Tech teachers around the county.
  • Professional development with teachers and administrators on implementing project-based learning. Teachers are required to learn new methods for planning and teaching.
  • Travel to other New Tech sites for training and school visits. So far, more than 40 Seaford staff members have visited other New Tech sites.
  • Assistance with scheduling, technology and startup issues.
  • Other related startup support.

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