Horry, Georgetown schools work toward more technology in classrooms

Nysire Lawrimore moved his finger across an iPad to animate one of the cartoon stars of his latest school video.

“I am King George!” said Nysire, 9, as he recorded his voice for the on-screen character, then repeated the process to create a colonist, who protested the king’s high taxes on tea.

Nysire and his third-grade classmates at Pee Dee Elementary School were using the Sock Puppets app on their school iPads to set scenes and add their own dialog to illustrate what led to the Boston Tea Party. Teacher Ashlyn Perry then slid each iPad underneath a document camera to project the videos onto a jumbo interactive white board so the class could view each other’s work and discuss what they had learned.

Each step of Perry’s lesson was tied to technology, now a necessary tool for engaging digital natives. Providing up-to-date equipment and teacher training makes outfitting a high-tech school a challenge, but it is one that’s been taken seriously by the Horry and Georgetown school districts.

In Horry County, the school district leads the way in providing a certain amount of technology across the board, but each school’s administration is in the driver’s seat when it comes to maximizing equipment use and finding creative ways to add to their stash.

Principals have different pots to pull from when adding technology to their classrooms, said Ashley Gasperson, coordinator of digital communications for Horry County Schools. She said in addition to available district initiatives, many schools apply for grant money, and Title I schools have the use of federal funds they receive based on the number of low-income children in their schools.

As part of district technology initiatives, teachers in kindergarten through second grade received one iPad2 this year to replace outdated iPAQ devices. About 525 iPads and childproof cases were issued for around $208,500.

The laptop initiative, which started several years ago, put laptops in the hands of a few teachers at a time, along with training on their use. Teachers were required to apply for the initiative, but the program has been completed and is now in a refresh cycle for the equipment.

Two years ago, a $1 million implementation put interactive white boards in all elementary schools, with an equal allocation and choice of equipment given to middle and high schools.

Schools are eligible to apply for up to $25,000 per year in district grant money to use for technology.

Teal Harding, HCS spokeswoman, said applications are required for some initiatives and are not given out at large. She said applicants must show a desire for the technology, a plan for how it will be used and a mechanism to evaluate its effectiveness.

In Georgetown County, more than $1 million, including some Title I funds, goes toward technology each year, said Patti Hammel, executive director for Student Performance and Federal Programs. She said one of this year’s big initiatives includes laptop carts to get technology caught up in the district’s middle and high schools. She said netbooks that had been in use have been moved to the elementary schools where they are better-suited.

Hammel said the district also hired three technology coaches this year – one each for the elementary, middle and high school levels – who work one-on-one with teachers in class to use technology to support state standards.

The district also has completed laptop distribution for all its teachers, and as a result, Hammel said a partnership through Dell will provide 83 days of assistance from an educational consultant who can show teachers the best technology strategies for student engagement. She said Waccamaw Intermediate School currently is piloting an iPad program, and the district also is working on the infrastructure needed to support all of its new technology.

In Horry County, Gasperson said Pee Dee Elementary School is an example of a school that has become technology-rich. She said Principal Cheryl Banks started with a vision for her school and has made the most of the available options.

“When I came here, we didn’t even have a Smart Board,” said Banks, who is in her seventh year at the school. “I began thinking of technology as a tool and an investment, but it is not a replacement for good instruction.”

Banks said she began her technology quest by creating an appetite for technology in the classroom.

Using Title I funds to purchase an interactive white board, she tapped one of her teachers who had experience with the board – along with a lot of passion and enthusiasm – to show other teachers what it could do, and different techniques and possibilities. More boards then were purchased for teachers who were interested.

Banks kept moving forward with her purchases, first with portable electronic boards to allow multiple students to show their work, then later with student response mechanisms – clickers that look like a remote control – and iPads that put the technology in the hands of the children. She said she has made a huge investment in hardware, and the challenge now is to look at software updates and ways to keep the technology current.

“Using technology is a change in instruction, and the kids are so intuitively connected that it increases their learning, and they learn well,” Gasperson said. “I’ve never walked out of a classroom where I didn’t learn something from the kids.”

Gasperson said teachers need more training so they know how to properly utilize their tools, but the district doesn’t have enough support to go around, and staff development time has been cut.

Banks earmarks funds specifically for her staff’s development, including some Title I funds that can be used to improve instructional practices. Not only has she been able to bring in trainers, but she said she sends staff members to technology educational conferences, and she has transformed a computer lab post into a lead technology position so that teachers can have hands-on help in the classroom.

“We’ve made discerning decisions,” Banks said, “but we haven’t figured it all out. We look at the funds available and try to get what will improve our capacity for learning.”

Banks said for all of technology’s advantages, it also comes along with some concerns. She said while schools used to be worried about playground safety, now they must be proactive about cyber safety. While the district provides certain filters, she said students have to be taught discernment with technology, the good from the bad and what’s appropriate for home versus school.

Edmodo – a network similar to Facebook - has become the popular online way for students and teachers to connect. Harding said it is used as an extension of the classroom, and teachers have to invite students into their group. The network allows all types of communication, from posting assignments to discussing homework. Hammel said Edmodo also is used in her district, but they are very careful about Internet protection codes and having parental permission.

Many teachers in both districts also have Facebook pages, and some do call and text students from time to time. The texting action may have caused some concern after recent incidents where a teacher in each county was charged in connection with inappropriate texts to a student, but both Harding and Hammel said the issue is the intent of the message, and that texting is just another communication tool.

“It comes down to what is appropriate and inappropriate contact between a teacher and a student,” Harding said. “Texting is just a different vehicle.”