CLEARWATER — The bookcases in the new Kings Highway Elementary School stood desolate and half-assembled Monday morning as teachers from the Pinellas County school district’s two newest schools began making paperless lesson plans for their “classrooms of the future.”
Kings Highway in Clearwater and Gulf Beaches Elementary School in St. Pete Beach were closed by the school district in 2009 but will reopen this school year as Centers for Innovation and Digital Learning. Teachers from both schools will spend the week in a “technology boot camp,” learning the in’s and out’s of the devices they will use to teach their students in futuristic classroom settings. They’ll return for a second boot camp next month.
“I’m really excited to go here next year. I love technology and playing games to learn,” said 9-year-old Olivia Catlin, who will enter fourth grade at Kings Highway next school year. “I’m most excited to do homework on my iPad because your papers won’t get ruined or lost. But now if you didn’t do your homework, now you’ll have to say the dog ate your iPad.”
About 20 teachers were hired at each school, and only two at Gulf Beaches are in their first year on the job. The rest are veterans attracted to the schools by the district’s vision to create “incubators of innovation,” said Pat Lusher, the school district’s director of library, technology, instructional materials and digital learning.
Students will sit on wheeled chairs at tables that can be arranged easily to work in small groups on hands-on, collaborative assignments. About 275 students are enrolled in each school and will learn in “flipped classrooms.” Students will be expected to learn their lessons at home for their homework and then participate in activities in class that test their knowledge, instead of the other way around.
Each teacher has been given a MacBook Pro and iPad Air, and each classroom will be equipped with a large SMARTboard projector that is also a touch-screen. Kindergartners and first-graders will have their own iPad mini to take home, and second- through fifth-graders will get iPad Airs. Each device costs between $299 and $399.
“The kids already know a lot of this technology, and I think it’ll be great to expose them so early on,” said Olivia’s mother, Jessica Catlin, a 10-year veteran teacher from High Point Elementary who will teach fourth grade at Kings Highway. “I think with all these programs that track activity, we’ll know if a student is scrolling on their iPad during class and isn’t with you. And it’ll be good for the shy kids because you can still interact with them.”
With the iPads, teachers could easily conduct real-time video conferences with parents, and a program called Classroom Dojo allows teachers to send parents easy-to-understand progress reports on their child’s classroom behaviors. The program also tracks how often teachers view each student’s profile to ensure that no student is overlooked.
To kick off the boot camp, teachers used iPads to go on a Quick Response Code scavenger hunt in the school, scanning codes with their devices to find a clue to their next location.
“Everyone’s really eager and excited to see how it will work with the kids,” said response to intervention teacher Chris Baker, a 12-year veteran from Northwest Elementary who will work at Gulf Beaches with his wife. “One of the clues made us take pictures of something that had a right angle, and another one had us take video of a license plate with a certain letter in it in the parking lot. I just kept thinking of all the ways we could use this with the kids.”
Many online lessons are individualized to students’ specific skill levels, and programs such as ST Math teach students on the sly while they’re playing video games. Tests and quizzes can be done on their iPads, and programs such as Showbie will let students create video lessons explaining how they work through math problems, Lusher said.
Students also will have the opportunity to give feedback on particular programs with a “thumbs up” or “thumbs down,” so teachers can figure out what’s most effective as they go along.
“We’re going to be a lot less paper, but we all believe in exposing kids to opening up a book and writing in a journal. Books will never go away in our world,” said Garyn Boyd, principal of Kings Highway.
The buildings, which have sat vacant for years, are still in need of repairs, and furniture will have to be completely replaced. Chain link fences are rusty, and yards are overgrown, but Boyd and Gulf Beaches Principal Robert Kalach have dedicated their summer to breaking in their new homes.
“We have to breathe life back into the buildings, but the easy part is the superficial things,” Kalach said. “The communities are ready for us. They’re very excited about having their schools open back up, and we’re going to do them one better.”