Joplin Takes Digital Approach to Rebuilding Education
An ambitious 1-to-1 laptop effort emerges in the wake of the tornado that devastated the Missouri district
Eight minutes after customers and workers rushed to take shelter last May in what had been Home Depot's employee-training room, Klista Reynolds was pulled from what was now rubble.
As she climbed out, she looked west across Rangeline Road, beyond toppled traffic lights, busted neon signs, and crumpled cars, into a path of the destruction she guessed had pulverized not only Joplin, Mo.'s big-box shopping district, but also its high school.
"I assumed 20th and Indiana was hit, and I thought, 'I think I'm going to take tomorrow off,' " says Reynolds, a technology-integration educator for the 7,400-student Joplin school district, now chuckling at the absurdity of the thought. "Other than dealing with hail hitting me in the head, and lightning that was striking over there, and my daughters that were crying, I thought, 'I'm taking tomorrow off.' "
But by the next day, as some Joplin residents salvaged what they could from flattened homes, and others worked Facebook, Twitter, and text messages to account for friends and loved ones (cellphone networks were too loaded to handle calls), Reynolds began researching what she instinctively knew would be Joplin High School's future.
And when she finally reunited with friend and Assistant Superintendent Angie Besendorfer—nearly a week after the Category 5 twister killed 161 people, left hundreds more injured, and gashed a trail a half-mile wide through the center of this town of roughly 50,000—she knew others also were already finding in the devastation an unusual opportunity for the district.
"She grabbed me and hugged me, and the first thing she said was, 'I'm so glad you're OK,' " remembers Reynolds. "And then after that it was, 'We get to do 21st-century schools now.' "
So began one of the more rapid and remarkable 1-to-1 laptop implementations in American public schooling—a project that Superintendent C.J. Huff had always envisioned, but never under these circumstances.
Fueled by a $1 million donation from the United Arab Emirates, and a desire, as Huff puts it, to "keep families in Joplin and give them something to look forward to," the district deployed 2,200 Apple MacBooks to all its high school students on the first day of the new school year, Aug. 17, 2011. That was just 87 days after the May 22 tornado leveled five of the Southwest Missouri district's 20 campuses, damaged five more, tore apart the school district's fiber-optic network, and displaced so many students that outside officials had predicted a hemorrhaging drop in enrollment.
"We lost about 5 percent of our enrollment, but people were telling us to expect 30 percent or better, and that didn't happen," Huff says. "And initial high school enrollment was up. I have no doubt the 1-to-1 initiative played into that."
The digital deployment followed a plan condensed into 55 days from a roughly nine-month time frame originally conceived by the district's technology department before the storm. It was executed in front of a horde of national media, on two makeshift campuses, with 9th and 10th graders downtown at a building last used for continuing education programs, and 11th and 12th graders housed in a school erected with portable walls inside the Northpark Mall. It was launched as a calculated risk for a community already burdened with more grief, stress, and anxiety in a year than most people see in a lifetime. And the initiative is anything but a guaranteed success.
"A lot of people are working through all the different stages," says Steve Leatherman, a special education instructor at the 11th and 12th grade campus, who lost his house in the storm. "I mean it was halfway through October that my mind started getting unclouded to really feel like I was doing a decent job.
"When you lose everything that you've got, and lesson plans and resources you've stored for years, … it's a whole new thing."
'What I Need to Do'
Adam Bell left the technology department of the Joplin school system in May of 2010 because of a blend of budget cuts and philosophical differences. When he was interviewed to return to the staff 12 days after the tornado, his old colleagues thought maybe that blend had aged into a mixture of compassion and insanity.
"We're interviewing him, and going like, 'Dude, are you freaking nuts?' " recalls Traci House, the district's director of technology.
Says Bell: "Just in my heart, I felt, this is what I need to do. This is where I need to be. I can make a difference here."
So Bell came back on board, says House, and immediately became a leader of the district's push to go 1-to-1 by the first day of school. Bell set the schedule for colleagues and his staff, and spearheaded efforts to work around obstacles that rose along the way at North Joplin Middle School, which temporarily housed the administration.
That included finding jobs for dozens of well-meaning but sometimes unknowledgeable volunteers. Some were eventually utilized to rove tables of opened MacBooks and press "enter" whenever a screen prompted, as Bell and colleagues performed a dual boot on all machines so vocational-program students could use Windows software.
The work also included Bell once having to climb through the ceiling tiles at the school, in search of additional power outlets to lessen the stress on the circuit breakers.
"Somebody's got to step up," says Bell. "And you're not a boss, by any means, but somebody's got to take a lead position and say, 'Hey, what do you guys think?' "
Bell's efforts were possible only after others on House's 15-person staff—as well as volunteers—made their own heroic efforts to salvage equipment, restart Joplin's network servers, and get district email up and running.
Technology specialist Dusty VanGilder joined others at the central administrative offices at sunrise the morning after the tornado as they worked to patch leaks and wrap server computers in painters' plastic before powering them up with a gas-powered generator. Fellow specialist Rick Freeborn traversed the wreckage of the high school building, scavenging for every piece of computing equipment he could find and leaving with about 15 laptops that would be used to get network servers functioning again.
At one point, House's staff worked overnight shifts at the administration building to keep the generators fueled and servers online through the evenings.
"When [House] said the first night she wants to stay by herself, I'm like, 'You're crazy. There's looters' everywhere," Freeborn says. "So I went by the National Guard, and said, 'Go by and check on her every once in a while.' "
Embracing Trial and Error
In the temporary school at the Northpark mall, built for Joplin's new 21st-century aspirations, there are alcoves with stools and desks, tables with plugs so students can link their laptops to LCD monitors, and plenty of outlets for laptop charging.
But for the first days of the 2011-12 school year, those spaces disoriented senior Brad White, whose only dependable landmark was a wall emblazoned with a red-and-white Joplin Eagles logo that cordons off a private student workroom.
It's an experience, White says, that helps him empathize with what his teachers must be feeling, asked to teach in a new school, with a new tool, and without the benefit of the months of professional development often deemed part and parcel of successful 1-to-1 programs. Teachers did have access to summer professional development, but with the demands of the post-tornado craziness, many struggled to attend regularly.
"I think that teachers and students, we aren't ready for it yet," says White, who wants to attend the theater program at Missouri State University in nearby Springfield after graduation. "A few teachers are starting to switch [to more effective use of the laptops.] That's the problem with this year. Everyone is switching."
White supports the initiative as a whole, but sometimes wishes it could have been phased in more gradually, and not during his senior year.
Some other students are outright dissenters, such as sophomore Laela Zaidi, who in late November wrote in her Huffington Post blog that the 1-to-1 initiative causes her to "turn into a zombie" for full class periods at a time.
But every student's experience with the laptop project appears different. In Paul Gipson's fifth-hour U.S. government class during an early-December day, some students use the laptops to write letters to their congressmen, for a class assignment, while others search their gmail accounts, and still others peruse ESPN.com to look at predictions for the college-bowl season.
Before and After the Tornado
High school: 600 PCs and laptops (labs, rolling laptop carts, personal teacher laptops)
eMINTS*: 60 classrooms
High school: 2,200 laptops (replacing rolling labs/carts)
eMINTS*: 63 classrooms
*A business unit within the University of Missouri, eMINTS partners with the Missouri education department to offer professional development to teachers. The PD uses interactive group sessions and in-classroom coaching and mentoring to help teachers integrate instructional technology at the elementary and middle school levels. Each eMINTS classroom includes a teacher laptop, an interactive whiteboard, a computer for every two students, a printer, a scanner, a digital classroom, and a digital camcorder.
In Chris Young's French class down the hall, some students work on Quizlet vocabulary exercises, while others check out teen-fashion Web pages, and one who occupies Young's classroom during what is for her a free period works at writing poetry. Through a gap in the temporary wall come the smells and sounds of eggs, sausage, and pancakes cooking in a home economics class next door.
"It's just about finding the resources," says Young, who concedes that his comfort with this model of education is still growing. "You've got to get the trial-and-error [commitment] from everyone."
In the short time it had, the district held department-by-department meetings and hired five instructional coaches to help teachers at the two high school campuses, and the Franklin Technology Center, lay out expectations and provide support for a new model that would see the district replace most textbooks with open and subscription-based Web resources.
But the exact nature of the model can be hard to decipher. The district has mandated that department faculty be pulled out of class once a month for collaborative planning, and has charged instructional coaches with pointing teachers toward content that aligns to class curricula.
Even so, teachers and students both say the transformation has been far from systematic or deliberate. And even Reynolds, who spearheads those efforts, concedes a wide variety of comfort level and acumen among students and teachers.
"Everybody is at a different spot on the spectrum," Reynolds says. "Some of the kids needed this—a lot of them needed this. But a lot of them were really good at playing the game of school and didn't need it as much. Teachers are kind of the same way."
Some teachers Assistant Superintendent Besendorfer approached about technology coaching positions wouldn't touch them, for fear of being seen by colleagues as an enemy, she says. And across departments, she says, attitudes have varied as widely as acumen.
"There were people that were going, 'All right, let's go,' and there were people that were angry and wanted to say, 'You didn't really mean us. We're going to have textbooks for our department, aren't we?' " Besendorfer says. "In the post-tornado life that we were living, there wasn't an opportunity to gain buy-in."
Besendorfer says she hopes some success stories will encourage other teachers to think more openly about reinventing their own teaching methods. And, she says, some of those stories are already out there.
One is Kristi McGowen's business class, which has benefited from the program while launching JoJoe's coffee shop in the school cafeteria, both in terms of student access to business management software, and customer access to wireless Internet.
And there's history teacher Dustin Dixon, who found he could reach 34 students in 90 minutes by holding Skype office hours the night before a test, as compared with one regular before-school tutoring session he holds for an hour twice a week.
Fellow history teacher Andy Ritter, who works primarily with gifted-level students, says instruction has become easier because his curriculum already involved many of the collaborative projects the laptops are designed to facilitate. But he hopes his colleagues who teach all levels of students will see the 1-to1 initiative as a gesture of goodwill, not an imposition by district leaders.
"It took a great element of trust that [Superintendent Huff] thought the staff could, in just almost 50 days, go from teaching with textbooks to teaching with laptops," Ritter says. "And I really feel that we need to step up to the plate and honor that trust professionally and ethically, and just as a community."
Emma Cox's family, like some 9,000 other people in Joplin at the time of the tornado, lost their house in the storm. Unlike most, they had a place to go.
Emma's family—her mother, father, sister, and two brothers—was among the first in the neighborhood to salvage what they could from their house and tear down the remnants of its wood frame to the ground. They were the first to relocate, thanks to one set of grandparents nearby.
And the weekend after the twister hit, they made the drive down I-44 into Oklahoma, to a family-owned lake house, in search of normalcy.
"My parents, … they kept us so busy that we didn't really have time to think about it, and I think that's really the best thing that we could've done and they could've done for us," says Cox, a senior who is now in a newer temporary family home just outside the district line, but still goes to school in Joplin.
"If you left Joplin," she says, "you could just block it out."
With 500 students districtwide still living in trailers provided by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA, as of early December of 2011, and many more scattered in unfamiliar houses on unfamiliar streets, a laptop with Web access can also be a mental bridge out of town for students. And, with the storm's path hitting a large, lower-middle-class neighborhood in the center of town particularly hard, Cox says she sees the appreciation less-advantaged students have for the district-issued devices.
"You could see the kids who were like, they had never had things like that," says Cox, who says she may attend the University of Missouri, in Columbia, next fall.
Freshman Chelcee Burton adds that it also has given students from across backgrounds a sense of unity.
"I think for everybody it's kind of a bonding experience, too, because we're all trying to figure out how to use them and how to do assignments and turn everything in," Burton says. "And we ask each other for help."
Huff, Besendorfer, and other district officials say the initiation of a 1-to-1 program was in no way meant to distract students from the grieving process that follows natural disasters, or in any way divergent from the district's long-term educational goals.
As the district holds "dream sessions" to conceive design ideas for the town's new high school, which the Omaha, Neb.-based DLR Group that created the mall school will break ground on this spring, it's possible that a career-pathways approach to education will result. That would require even more collaboration and student production as part of the educational experience, and give more opportunities for practical use of the district-issued laptops.
But Besendorfer, the assistant superintendent, admits that, for this year at least, while it was imperative to get students back into school and give them structure, success won't be judged by whether putting laptops in classrooms results in higher test scores.
"I think we definitely know that this is their only chance at this year of their education," Besendorfer says. "It's their only junior year, it's their only 2nd grade year, it's their only everything, and it has to be a quality year.
"However, I think that quality can be measured in different ways," she says. "For some kids, a quality year of education is going to be helping them become emotionally OK again.
"If achievement drops a little bit, and we took care of our kids, and we didn't have any suicides, and we did the right kinds of things that way, … I'm not going to be concerned about that at all."
Vol. 05, Issue 02, Pages 16-22Published in Print: February 8, 2012, as Rebuilding Joplin Ed.
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