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From Cradle to Computer

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Cradled amid mountains, mesas, cactus, and copper mines, Winkelman, Ariz., a tiny town about 90 miles southeast of Phoenix, seems an unlikely site for a technological revolution.

But at the Hayden-Winkelman Elementary School, even the tiniest, most tentative fingers can touch a screen, maneuver a mouse, or press a "power pad''--a large tablet sensitive to the touch--to click their way competently around a computer screen.

Guided through headphones by digitized voices in English or Spanish and encouraged by teachers, 3-year-old Head Start children display tenacity rare for their age as they match images of animal parts and habitats, or form flowers and faces from a palette of hues and designs.

In classes from preschool through 6th grade, children rotate among learning centers that weave computer work into every activity, from art to essays to equations.

Nationally, the use of computers with young children has increased gradually, most significantly in public schools. But many educators are not convinced of their merits or trained to use them to advantage, and few schools have infused computers as extensively and as early in children's lives as Hayden-Winkelman.

While enthusiastic about initial assessment results and improved student and teacher morale, school officials in the Hayden-Winkelman system admit that "the jury is still out'' on the technology's long-range academic and social impact.

But the district has devoted enough time and study, and made such significant changes in school structure, so as to make it a fertile testing ground.

"Teachers use computers to reinforce all the concepts they are teaching, and the ability of the children to use them independently is one of the most impressive things,'' says June Wright, an associate professor of education at Eastern Connecticut University who chairs a caucus on technology and young children that meets at conferences of the National Association for the Education of Young Children. "By the time you have been through all the rooms, you have seen them used in half a dozen different ways with different subject areas.''

Rather than confining computers to an isolated lab, teachers in the Arizona district use them to supplement the curriculum and enhance skills being practiced in other activity areas. Each classroom has at least four computers, one for every five students.

Eager To Show Off

In a preschool class, children rotate from the animal-habitat computer program to centers where they listen to animal stories on tape, do animal puzzles and drawings that match mother and baby animals, decorate cards with animal stamps, and play an animal bingo game. Later they discuss their work as a group during "circle time.''

In a 3rd-grade class, children work at centers in pairs doing research on holiday customs in various countries, making crafts, drafting reports based on their research, conferring with the teacher, and polishing and printing their reports on the computers.

In a separate lab that K-3 children attend regularly, teachers work with small groups on activities tied to the International Business Machines Corporation's "Writing to Read'' series or use the computer network to walk children through new software step by step.

Children of all ages are comfortable logging on and calling up activities on the computers, and they eagerly beckon visitors over to describe and show off their work.

"I feel like it gives me more of an education,'' says Justin McClelland, a 6th grader immersed in crafting sentences on the screen. "In the future there's going to be more jobs using computers rather than writing things down, so it's important to use a computer.''

Peter Guzman, a high school teacher and coach with 20 years' experience who became the principal of the elementary school in the fall of 1992, says concern about the poor job prospects facing area students and graduates led the district to form a technology committee. The panel, led by Guzman, the high school principal, and the district computer coordinator, set out to explore how technology could breathe life into "a dying district,'' Guzman recalls.

'Could Work Anywhere'

The local schools are the lifeblood of Hayden and Winkelman, two adjoining towns with a combined population of about 1,800. But two years ago, Mr. Guzman says, the district was losing students at an alarming rate as a result of its lackluster reputation, rundown facilities, and test scores ranking among the lowest in Gila County.

Among other drawing cards, schools in nearby towns had begun using computers.

With the help of ASARCO, the mining company that pays nearly 91 percent of the district's taxes, the technology panel helped garner support among citizens for a $3.5 million bond issue. Besides funding school renovations, the measure, passed in the summer of 1992, earmarked $1 million for computer equipment and support.

After consulting with experts and educators at conferences and other schools, the district bought state-of-the-art I.B.M. equipment and the company's "Teaching and Learning With Computers,'' a package of software and supporting materials that helps teachers fuse computer-based programs with existing curricula and lesson plans.

For younger children, the district chose Kidware, a package made by the Mobius Corporation of Alexandria, Va., that is geared to young children's developmental styles.

The vision guiding the elementary school's efforts was inspired in part by Guzman's visit to the South Bay Union school district in San Diego, which has a predominantly low-income, Hispanic student population similar to Hayden-Winkelman's.

The visit "convinced me this could work anywhere,'' he says.

In addition to training sessions held the week before school began in the fall of 1992, the school hired an independent consultant and curriculum specialist to spend three or four days a week working with teachers for a full school year.

The consultant, Beverly Carver, helped teachers reorganize their classrooms around the computers and "match the objectives of the courseware with what they were doing thematically'' at other centers.

Teachers were able to synthesize computer concepts in slow, steady doses, "as much as they were ready for,'' Carver says. "That's the way training and in-service should be done when you are changing the structure of a classroom.''

Respect, Motivation

The district also stirred parents' interest by holding sessions where they could try the computers and watch children use them.

The investment in computers, Guzman is convinced, helped the school maintain its enrollment and draw new students, even after floods destroyed nearly half the homes in Winkelman a year ago.

The changes have also spurred a steady stream of visits by legislators and educators, prompted invitations to testify at regional Congressional hearings, and helped earn the school a grant for a summer program and participation in an international research study on how 4- to 6-year-olds use Kidware.

Spring 1993 results from the Arizona Student Assessment Program showed the school's 3rd graders scoring above county and state averages in reading, and also faring better in mathematics and writing than on previous tests.

But more significant than the "respectability'' lent by test scores, Guzman maintains, is the children's newfound motivation. "Kids are happy to come to school and excited, and teachers say self-esteem has skyrocketed,'' he says.

Teachers say the computer work hones children's motor, memory, and problem-solving skills, and also teaches them to work cooperatively.

The program's focus on language development has also hastened students' grasp of reading and writing, teachers say.

"By the second week they can all type their name, and by the first semester they all know their A B C's without a formal lesson,'' boasts kindergarten teacher Fran Roberts.

"Kids in this school are reading and writing at a very young age, and the quality of the literature is really good,'' observes Susan Holt Maas, the curriculum director of the Osborn district in Phoenix and a recent visitor to Hayden-Winkelman Elementary.

"The computer can give us ideas and help us, and it's fun to type,'' pipes in 6th grader Jacob Sawyer.

The ease of composing on computers has also generated more creative and prolific prose, 1st-grade teacher Tom Schaper notes.

Even for the youngest children, says Robert Myers, the Head Start site manager, computer interaction fosters hand-eye coordination, pre-reading skills, and a "positive feeling of accomplishment.''

"If it was frustrating in any way, they wouldn't have anything to do with it,'' he adds.

Advantages, Cautions

Teachers also say the computers and learning-center rotations have freed them to spend more time with children individually.

"The traditional way of teaching didn't really allow for that,'' 3rd-grade teacher Juanita Estrada says.

The new system has also eased assessment and helped individualize instruction by keeping computerized records of how far children have progressed on various programs.

A more elaborate record system the district will begin implementing this month will also allow teachers to track and assess curricular goals linked with the state assessment.

School personnel, meanwhile, hope that the program will give their students more marketable skills.

"Just about everywhere you apply for work, one of the first questions is how much experience do you have with computers,'' says 5th-grade teacher Randy Sandoval, whose students rotate between hands-on mathematics activities and equation programs on computers.

"When these kids are done they will have a salable skill,'' adds James Churchill, another 5th-grade teacher.

Most teachers at the school had no prior computer experience, and they admit to having been skeptical or scared at first. But they say time, training, and a supportive atmosphere have helped.

"Now I have a gift, because I could go to a district just starting with computers ... and help take that fear away,'' says Churchill.

Many also think that the program has improved teaching by encouraging thematic units and the integration of social studies and other subjects.

But most teachers stress that they view computers only as a supplement to sound teaching, and caution that care must be taken to balance technology with traditional tools.

"You still need that sense of taking a book and getting lost in it,'' Churchill observes.

Some teachers also say they would like to learn to be able to put in more of their own program modifications, a task that might be eased by the new management system.

No 'Magic Wand'

Some educators note that their reliance on computers can sometimes be a liability.

Although response time for clearing up mechanical problems has been quick, Estrada, the 3rd-grade teacher, says, it is frustrating when the system goes down without warning, because "we have incorporated it so much into our daily teaching.''

Superintendent Charles Lemley says that restructuring the schools around technology has sparked a "revolution'' in reaching children with diverse learning styles and tracking their progress.

But he stresses that "computers can't do everything'' for a school in a remote rural area.

Despite the largess of the copper mines, he says, the district's per-pupil funding and teacher salaries are well below average, a situation he attributes largely to inequities in the state's school-funding formula.

Technology is no "magic wand'' for solving "some of the basic problems we have,'' he says.

School administrators also stress that Hayden-Winkelman's computer innovations would not have been possible in many rural districts, where bond money is usually spent solely on building renovation.

In addition, the use of computers has not spurred reforms in all aspects of the curriculum. Despite the excitement of the computers and restructured classrooms, some teachers use methods and worksheets at other learning centers that appear to stress rote rather than hands-on learning.

Guzman acknowledges some teachers are more adept at weaving in technology than others, and that computers cannot turn around all teaching.

"There is a lot of good teaching going on without computers, and excellent schools--that's never going to change,'' he says. "All I am saying is that technology gives even those excellent schools one more chance to do a better job.''

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