Students in Cherie Godwin's chemistry class paid more attention last year, and Godwin credits an influx of new technology for capturing her teenagers' attention.
The West Ashley High School teacher had a Smartboard and projector, a document camera that enlarges items or images so the entire class can see them and an interactive system that gives students remotes and enables them to interact with Smartboards from their desks.
"They fight over going to the (Smart)board," she said. "They want to be able to play with it. They're totally involved in every lesson."
The equipment in Godwin's room soon will be standard for every Charleston County classroom. Every district teacher will have a wall-mounted Smartboard and projector in their classroom by October 2010.
The technology upgrades are part of a $42.5 million, five-year plan to modernize the district's classrooms in an effort to boost student achievement.
The school board approved the funding in last year's capital projects budget, and officials have spent the past year analyzing equipment needs and researching options. They now have started buying Smartboards and projectors, and some students will see the new technology in their classrooms this fall.
"We've been doing so much planning," said Beth
Lovett, a district education technology specialist. "We kind of had to go slow in the beginning before we could go fast. It's such a big investment. We wanted to make sure we had the right products in Charleston County."
Within five years, every classroom will have new laptops for the teacher, document cameras, two student computers and the interactive remote system. The board approved additional funding to equip classrooms with sound enhancement technology that ensures all its sound sources are integrated and controlled so every student can hear the lesson, regardless of where he is seated.
"With the rapid advances of technology, we're going to continue to assess what is out there and available and modify our standards to meet whatever happens to be the best for us at the time," said Mike Bobby, the district's chief financial officer. "The bottom line is improved instructional delivery resulting in higher levels of student achievement. End of story. That's why we're doing this."
This is the first time the district has taken a system-wide approach in buying technology for schools. Until now, individual schools were responsible for buying equipment, which means a school's technology depended on how much money parents could raise or whether the school could win a grant.
Smartboards are becoming commonplace in Lowcountry classrooms. Suburban Dorchester District 2 schools have Smartboards in elementary, middle and high school classrooms that can support the technology, and Berkeley County has Smartboards in most every classroom, too.
Charleston school officials decided that the first 10 schools to receive Smartboards would be the same ones receiving students from shuttered schools. The four technology or communications-themed schools — Chicora Elementary, Laing Middle, West Ashley Middle and Garrett Academy — will be the next to receive the equipment, and the district held a lottery with high-poverty schools receiving a 2 to 1 weighting to determine the order of the remaining schools. Smartboards are being installed in new district buildings before they open to students.
District leaders plan to evaluate schools that already have Smartboards and determine whether that technology meets the district standard. If it doesn't, those schools will receive new equipment. The district also is working to obtain grants that would enable schools that already have this technology to be the first to pilot other new technology. Lovett said that represents an opportunity for the school to recoup the money raised or invested by parents or grants.
Officials want to ensure that teachers who have the new equipment know how to use it to create engaging lessons, so they are offering training courses. A pool of 45 teachers received 45 hours of training last year, and they will be a good resource for helping the rest of the district's 3,500 teachers become comfortable with the new equipment, Lovett said. The district eventually plans to create a database of student-centered lessons to be used with the Smartboards.
Godwin has taken so many classes that she's qualified to train other teachers. Having a Smartboard, document camera and interactive remote system in her room and knowing how to use them has changed the way she teaches. Although she still lectures, she said, she tries to make her lessons more hands-on for students. The interactive remote system gives her immediate feedback on whether students are understanding certain concepts, and that's made it easier to know when to go back and review material, she said.
Goodwin Elementary teacher Sherrill Kirkland began using the new technology this past year, too, and now she feels as if she can't live without a Smartboard in her classroom. It's kept her more focused on her lessons and ensured that she hit important points with the class, she said.
She said she hates seeing Smartboards used as glorified white boards and hopes that teachers take advantage of the available training so that their lessons are interactive.
At Midland Park Elementary in North Charleston, Principal Robert Candillo has been setting aside money to enhance his school's technology. A little more than half of his school's classes had Smartboards this past year, and third- through fifth-grade teachers also had interactive remote systems.
His enthusiasm for the new equipment is palpable as he excitedly describes its benefits, such as the way it brings lessons to life and enables teachers to make better decisions about their instruction. He sees more student engagement in classes where teachers had daily access to the equipment, and he thinks it will help students be better prepared for the future.
"I think this is one of the best things we have looked at in the county in a long time," he said.