Published Online: January 15, 1997

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The Comfort Zone

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But Meadows is also focused on student learning, always weighing the mix of technologies schools need to support the plan's three broad goals: knowledge capture, knowledge interpretation, and knowledge creation. He pays special attention to what he calls "the implementation gap," a temporary decline in test scores that experts have documented in schools in the early stages of adopting high-tech methods. Meadows wants to avoid the phenomenon in Tupelo. Shortly before he arrived, average reading scores at the elementary schools on the Iowa Tests of Basic Skills had fallen for three consecutive years, even at Rankin Elementary, the district's technology test bed. Fortunately, the districtwide slump ended, and the past three years have seen reading scores climb again--and none more rapidly than at Rankin.

Rankin Elementary enjoys special status in Tupelo. "It's really been our lighthouse," Meadows says. Given the district's first Internet connections, the school has been a proving ground for Internet practices and policies. Since then, grants and awards have flowed into the school, along with hundreds of visiting educators. Last July, the district began gearing up to export the lessons learned at Rankin across the district. Superintendent Vinson tapped Rankin's principal, Dale Warriner, for a district role as the assistant superintendent for evaluation. Previously, Warriner had spent five years as a guidance counselor at a Tupelo middle school.

As Rankin's principal, Warriner reigned instead of ruled. She put schoolwide innovations to a teacher vote. She urged teachers to question their assumptions about instruction, attend conferences, and visit other high-tech schools. She helped them open their eyes to new ways of teaching. During Warriner's tenure, for example, teachers started experimenting with multiage classrooms and found that technology proved to be a natural complement to multiage teaching principles.

But not all the early reviews were glowing. Some teachers grumbled about the change in the school's culture, and a number opted to transfer to other schools. "One teacher who left," Warriner recalls, "more or less told parents their children would get cancer from computers."

Tupelo has reversed the typical pattern of focusing training on novice teachers. It's reaching out to the more experienced first and coaxing them to train the rest.

Even teachers who didn't feel threatened by the school's technological advances worried about losing sight of the basics. Donna Jones, for one, was wary of anything that might distract her 2nd graders from mastering their reading skills. "If you're too computer-oriented," she says, "there's a risk they might not get enough reading."

Warriner's response to the naysayers has remained firm: "Don't tell me what you can't do; I want to know what you're going to do." To her, the bottom line is that Rankin's students are doing better. As evidence, she highlights the scores of the same children in successive years as they compare to national norms. She makes a point of not comparing the performance of one 4th grade class with that of the next 4th grade class--a common approach that she says glosses over real differences in students from year to year. Those differences might even out across a district, she argues, but not within a school. Rankin's 3rd graders last year jumped from four points below the national norm to 15 points above it.

But even at Rankin, only half the teachers are using technology effectively. Still, Warriner says, if you look at the teachers who have integrated technology into their classroom activities, you'll find many of the highest average scores in the building.

Last year, Rankin's second-highest test scores came out of Kameron Conner's 2nd grade class. A trace of pride comes over Warriner's face as she talks about Conner. Having worked together for almost three years, the former principal and teacher know each other well. "She's my second mom," says Conner, which seems a natural statement coming from a 24-year-old with an effervescent, almost girlish personality.

"I'm not a techie. My main role is serving as a former teacher and helper."

Kameron Conner,
technology projects coordinator

Conner admits that she's not yet comfortable in her new role as the district's technology projects coordinator. "It's been pretty weird not being a teacher this year," she says. "Weird but good." But Conner has already impressed those around her with a serious but sensitive approach to teachers struggling to go high-tech. "I'm not a techie," Conner says. "My main role is serving as a former teacher and helper."

Conner's job description, in fact, signals a districtwide change of heart that recognizes how the teaching and technical sides of technology canbe worlds apart. Until this year, Tupelo lumped together both sets of concerns under former technology coordinator, Cavet Otis. Now the district's technician, Otis focuses on debugging the new computer networks and troubleshooting the more serious ailments of aging computers. Conner turns her attention to the human side: the network of teachers and administrators who will decide whether--and how--to use the new machines in the classroom.

Giving advice to teachers often twice her age with immeasurably more classroom experience requires a delicate touch. Conner's former colleagues at Rankin praise her as a communicator, team player, and unrepentant early-childhood teacher. "What I do is very 2nd grade," Conner warns a group of teachers as she unpacks a colorful display at the start of a recent training session.

Growing up about an hour away in the village of New Hope, Conner followed her mother, a 3rd grade teacher, into education. She worked her way through Mississippi State University, where she earned her education degree. While working as a professor's assistant, she taught herself how to use a computer. She had to, Conner says, because her teacher-training courses virtually ignored technology.

But Conner says she did learn something of the inequity of educational resources. Her teacher practicum took her to a rural elementary school just a few miles from the university where students had to supply their own crayons. One day, when a child arrived clutching a plastic sandwich bag with only seven crayons, he explained that his mother had divided the box among nine children. The memory of that child fuels Conner's impatience with schools that don't take advantage of technologies available almost for the asking.

Conner believes technology has the power to level the academic playing field for low-achieving and disadvantaged students. Tupelo is not a poor district, but there are achievement gaps among its schools that Conner thinks technology could close. "That's why we say technology is the great equalizer," she says.

In 1992, Conner was hired at Rankin Elementary to substitute for a teacher on leave. She impressed Warriner with a multimedia project she created for her 4th graders and was brought on as a permanent teacher the next fall. Conner proved a quick study in how to make the most of technology. Over time, she became a believer in technology's potential to boost student learning. It has limits, she says: Teachers must be discerning about the educational software they rely on, and the technology must be woven into daily activities so that it's almost transparent.

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