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Published in Print: March 1, 2000, as Ciao, Chalkboard

Ciao, Chalkboard

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Now that the dust has settled on the renovations at Bethesda Elementary in a Maryland suburb of Washington, D.C., the school has floor-to-ceiling windows, rows of teal and turquoise Macintosh computers, and a state-of-the-art infirmary.

What it doesn't have is chalkboards.

The school's blackboards have been ripped out and replaced with cool silver-gray dry-erase boards-sometimes known as whiteboards or markerboards. "We have [a dry-erase board] in every classroom," principal Anne Gavin says proudly. "The teachers were anxious to have them, and they eliminate the problem of chalk-dust allergies. We don't worry about the dust getting into the computer keyboards and making them stick."

Bethesda Elementary, a 420-student K-5 school in Montgomery County, Maryland, is just one of many schools nationwide doing away with the venerable blackboard. Its chalkboards came down when contractors remodeled the facility during the 1998-99 school year. The colored markers used to write on the new dry-erase boards are handy teaching tools, Gavin says, helping children visualize key components of complex concepts. Indeed, at the front of a 4th grade room one day recently, children worked on division problems displayed in green, wrote their answers in blue, and placed remainders in red. "The markers are clearer and easier for the children to write with," notes Karen Sanchez, a reading specialist at the school.

The traditional classroom blackboard was made of slate, a hard, fine-grained metamorphic rock that cleaves naturally into thin, smooth-surfaced layers. "Today, it is very rare that we get an order to make a chalkboard," says Peter Papay, president of Penn Big Bed Slate Co. in Slatington, Pennsylvania. "Now, we're making windowsills, fireplaces, and floor tile, but no chalkboards." Demand for slate boards began to dwindle in the early 1960s, Papay says, when companies started manufacturing synthetic boards. Markerboards made their first appearance in American schools on the West Coast. On the East Coast, where fewer new schools are being built, they are taking a bit longer to catch on.

Nevertheless, "whiteboards are the wave of the future," maintains Harold Moss, a vice president of Master Woodcraft Inc. His company, the oldest existing manufacturer of chalkboards, originally sold slate boards, then diversified its product line to include synthetic boards made with steel or wood frames. Last year, approximately 68 percent of the boards it sold were synthetic.

Board suppliers confirm the trend. Scott Bowers, marketing manager for Ghent Manufacturing Inc., a national supplier of visual-communication products based in Lebanon, Ohio, says his company sells three to four dry-erase boards for every chalkboard. "Markerboards are the writing surface of choice," Bowers says. "If you look under a microscope at a chalkboard surface, it is all peaks and valleys that dig into chalk, creating dust. The markerboard is completely smooth."

"Plus," he adds, "they don't make that awful sound."

Of course, some will always believe chalk rocks. Zoy Calomiris, Bethesda Elementary School's K-5 art teacher, says markers make it impossible to vary the darkness of lines or get a nice shading effect. Papay of Penn Big Bed remains a fan of traditional boards, too; slate, he says, can be washed clean, while synthetic boards always look smudgy.

And Michael Shpur, architect for school facilities in Montgomery County, is not wild about the cost of using whiteboards. Markers, he points out, are expensive: At Office Depot, a package of four costs $3.99. A 12-piece box of chalk, meanwhile, runs only 59 cents.

—Meghan Mullen

Vol. 11, Issue 6, Pages 18-19

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