Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Newell-Fonda - 1:1

Today, I had the chance to visit Newell-Fonda High School in Newell, Iowa. Superintendent Jeff Dicks and Technology Director Tim Limbert were very generous in showing a group of educators their 1:1 initiative in action.

Newell-Fonda is a small, class-A school with a graduating class of 34 this year. The building itself is typical of what you would see in small rural districts, an older construction with many asymmetrical expansions.

But, their classroom instruction is anything but typical. With each high school student possessing a Macbook, they have several features of a digital curriculum taking place.

The interesting part of the story is the speed of adoption. Dicks mentioned it started with a call from Apple last January, and within 3 months, the superintendent, the tech team, the teachers, and the school board all got on board. In addition to adding Limbert's position, they agreed to a $64,000/year lease, which is quite a considerable investment for a small district.

Yet, you cannot deny it has transformed the school. There wasn't a student I visited with who didn't think that the program a) made them like school more, and b) had a positive impact on their learning. Classes were using a variety of instructional strategies, be it digital storytelling with the iLife suite, Geogebra and spreadsheets in math, Sketchup for computer-aided design, or an eBoard for posting assignments.

Several points made by Dicks and Limbert during the presentation jumped out at me:

• They held deployment (=handing the computers to the students) a week before school started to familiarize students with them. One parent had to attend the deployment.

• In many households, this was the family computer.

• On several occasions, they mentioned that students played games, and that was okay. As advice, Dicks said a district would have to reconcile themselves with that fact before they should go ahead with a 1:1.

• The key, they mentioned, was four days of Apple training that the staff had. Of course, Alan Hansen from Apple countered by saying that the key was the strong leadership the school had.

• They worked with a local insurance agency to develop a plan where families would pay $35 voluntarily and then have a $100 deductible on any damage (which was important because they had some broken screens the first week).

• Discipline referrals had been cut almost in half from the previous year.

• Students were not only allowed, but encouraged to use iTunes. When students built their own music libraries on the computer, they built a sense of ownership of the machine, which mant they took better care of it.

• Limbert had organized a "student tech team" to help troubleshoot computer issues... a first-line of defense.

Now, they still have some room for improvement, but the amount/depth of integration I saw today was way ahead of where I'd expect teachers 5 months into the adoption to be. They, like Central City, have the advantage of being a small district, which makes deployment easier. And, they have a very supportive board who sees the changing needs the 21st century brings.

My favorite part of the day had more to do with the issue of technology leadership than it did with a 1:1. Limbert shared this story (twice) with the group. When he was hired, Dicks said to him that his top priority was not to make sure the computers were fixed or the network was working. It was instead to make sure the teachers weren't frustrated. Words every superintendent should share with their technology coordinators, and every technology coordinator should live by.

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