Meeting District Needs

Modern Classrooms See Chalkboards Left in the Dust

By Meghan Mullen — January 12, 2000 4 min read
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When visitors stroll through the renovated Bethesda Elementary School in a suburb of Washington, they see shiny blue pillars, floor-to-ceiling windows, rows of teal and turquoise Macintosh computers, and a state-of-the-art infirmary.

What they do not see are chalkboards.

Instead, wherever the once-ubiquitous black or green chalkboard loomed, a cool silver-gray dry-erase board now hangs. These are markerboards, or white boards—steel board coated with porcelain enamel on which erasable markers are used.

“We have [a dry-erase board] in every classroom,” Principal Anne Gavin said. “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 the Montgomery County, Md., system, is just one of many schools nationwide that have joined this quiet revolution in classroom accouterment.

Its chalkboards came down when the school was extensively remodeled over the course of the 1998-99 school year, including an upgrade of the electrical system to make the school Internet-accessible.

The new dry-erase boards, Ms. Gavin said, are easy to clean with any soft cloth and do not leave a cloud of dust, which can cause breathing problems for children with asthma.

She also fancies the markerboards over their chalky ancestors because teachers can easily display concepts in different colors, and introducing color helps capture children’s attention.

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.

Karen Sanchez, a reading specialist at the school, demonstrated a miniature dry-erase board and said, “The markers are clearer and easier for the children to write with,” she said.

Peaks and Valleys

Scott Bowers, the marketing manager for Ghent Manufacturing Inc., a national supplier of visual-communication products based in Lebanon, Ohio, says that today his company sells three to four dry-erase boards for every chalkboard.

Similarly, Patrick O’Neal, the national sales manager for Best-Rite Manufacturing in Cameron, Texas, said his company’s markerboard sales rose nearly 30 percent in each of the last four years, while chalkboard sales have, so to speak, been flat.

Markerboards made their first appearance in U.S. schools on the West Coast, Mr. Bowers said. On the East Coast, where fewer new schools are being built, they are taking a bit longer to catch on.

“Recently, markerboards are the writing surface of choice,” Mr. Bowers said. “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.”

Harold Moss, a vice president of Master Woodcraft Inc., a New York City-based manufacturer of chalk and dry-erase boards, said that approximately 68 percent of the visual- aid boards it sold last year were the dry-erase variety. Master Woodcraft, founded in 1950 and the oldest existing manufacturer of chalkboards, sold the original slate boards, then went to synthetic boards made with steel or wood frames.

Mark Dobbs, the vice president for sales and marketing for Dri Mark, a marker and highlighter manufacturer in Port Washington, N.Y., said sales of dry-erase markers are up dramatically.

He believes markers are popular in school markets because of their visibility. “Plus, they don’t make that awful sound,” Mr. Dobbs added.

But chalk advocates such as Bethesda Elementary School’s K-5 art teacher, Zoy Calomiris, yearn for the old ways. With markerboards, Ms. Calomiris said, it is not possible to vary the darkness of lines or get that nice shading effect she once relied on. Markers produce one unrelenting intensity of color.

Not only creativity, but also cost, are matters of concern. Michael Shpur, the Montgomery County district’s architect for school facilities, pointed out that a box of markers is expensive and can become ruined easily if their caps aren’t replaced.

At Office Depot, a box of 12 pieces of chalk costs 59 cents, compared with $3.99 for four markers.

The pricier markers are “an additional operating cost that schools have to consider when switching to dry-erase boards,” Mr. Shpur noted.

As for the boards, prices are similar: $185 for a 6' x 4' chalkboard with an aluminum frame and $189 for a markerboard, same size, same frame, according to Quartet, a national manufacturer of both styles of boards located in Skokie, Ill.

Handwriting on the Wall

Originally made of slate, a hard, fine-grained, metamorphic rock that cleaves naturally into thin, smooth-surfaced layers, blackboards were long the bread-and-butter product of Penn Big Bed Slate Co., in Slatington, Pa., said the firm’s president, Peter Papay.

“Today, it is very rare that we get an order to make a chalkboard,’' he said. “Now, we’re making windowsills, fireplaces, and floor tile, but no chalkboards.”

Demand for slate boards dwindled beginning in the early 1960’s, Mr. Papay said, when companies began to manufacture synthetic boards.

A real slate blackboard can be washed clean, while synthetic boards can wear away and always look smudgy, Mr. Papay said.

However, noting the extensive use of the dry-erase boards in athletic locker rooms, where coaches for professional and amateur teams illustrate plays and fast breaks, Mr. Moss of Master Woodcraft said “white boards are the wave of the future.”

The division of planning and construction for schools in Maryland’s Montgomery County is renovating nine of the county’s 180 schools, and dry-erase boards are being added, said Giles Benson, the director of materials management for the county.

As schools move forward into the new millennium, the dry-erase board seems to have that dust-free air of inevitability.

A version of this article appeared in the January 12, 2000 edition of Education Week as Modern Classrooms See Chalkboards Left in the Dust


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