The Comfort Zone

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Tupelo, Miss.

A Mississippi district struggles to bring technology to the classroom without invading teachers' personal space.

Employees arriving at school district headquarters in Tupelo, Miss., cast wary eyes at the computers that have appeared overnight. Their trusty Macintoshes are still there, but a new Pentium crowds each desk, too. Empty cartons and wayward cables add to the disarray. Though the staff was warned early and often about the switch to DOS computers and Windows95, the atmosphere is still tense.

"You can do anything on Windows that you could do on a Mac," Superintendent Michael Vinson assures everyone at a briefing that November morning. Yet for him, the change is a welcome one. Vinson admits that he never quite got the hang of the Mac after moving from a DOS-based school system to become Tupelo's deputy superintendent in 1994. David Meadows, the assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction, also tries to soften the blow. Training on the new machines will begin next week, he says, and the Macs will remain temporarily as a "safety valve."

Tupelo school officials know the new operating system invades the comfort zone of the central-office staff members--most of whom are experienced computer users. So they're taking even greater pains to smooth the technological transformation for the district's 450 teachers. The next three years will see Tupelo schools moving toward the vanguard of technology-using districts as new computers and networks are installed in classrooms and media centers at the district's dozen schools. Eventually, every school will be linked to the Internet.

Yet Tupelo's school officials recognize what scores of other school leaders have realized: Unless teachers learn to accept and use technology as a daily tool, teaching will not change and learning will not improve.

Today, a small but growing number of Tupelo's teachers are turning to technology to support a wide range of classroom activities. But eight out of 10 teachers still don't feel confident blending technology with instruction, according to a district survey conducted last May. And half of those teachers consider themselves technological novices.

Shifting those numbers is a goal woven throughout the district's technology plan. It's also the mission of Kameron Conner, a young teacher who just this year leapt from her 2nd grade classroom to the central office to become the district's new technology projects coordinator. Both Conner and Meadows sat on the committee that last summer wrote the technology plan, outlining a total investment of more than $850,000 over the next three years. (See "A Three-Year Plan of Action," Page 37.) The plan, which incorporates school-level strategies as well as ideas from teachers and community members, is designed to allow schools latitude in choosing their own path to technology. Only one common principle must be observed: Improvement of student learning is the paramount end, and improvement of teaching is the primary means.

Experts say a technology plan is essential to tailoring new technologies to instructional goals. Another basic ingredient is adequate investment in training, an amount that experts generally recommend to be 30 percent of the total spent on hardware and software. Although Tupelo's budget for professional development--at $143,992 for three years--comes in at about 17 percent, those numbers are deceptive. Additional community resources bolster the training budget substantially.

Tupelo's schools enjoy an enviable tradition of support from parents and local businesses. Parent organizations in recent years have donated computers and televisions to local schools; some schools in turn have offered parent workshops in computers and the Internet. What's more, local manufacturers, many of whom see future prosperity in technically skilled employees, have set out to upgrade the technological skills of the teaching corps. Not long ago, a local textile magnate, L.D. Hancock, gave the schools an apartment complex worth $3.5 million. From the building's revenues, the district draws $225,000 annually--money earmarked for staff development and technology training. Much of this has paid for teachers to attend conferences and visit more high-tech schools.

And when teachers return brimming with ideas, a group of local business leaders has found a way to give them a chance to experiment at home. For the past 10 years, the Association for Excellence in Education has awarded $100,000 a year to teachers who want to put their newfound technological knowledge and interest into action. Teachers may apply for AEE grants of up to $2,000. Last year, for example, the program helped one teacher buy a computer for a class project on the ecosystem of the Mississippi River.

Superintendent Vinson, a bearish man with an august, easy manner, built his technology agenda on a foundation of his predecessor, former schools chief Michael Walters. For years, Walters funded trips for teachers and principals to observe other schools using new technologies and instructional strategies. When Vinson stepped up as superintendent in 1995, he wanted to convert that knowledge into systemwide instructional improvements.

Eight out of 10 Tupelo teachers don't feel comfortable using computers in the classroom. Half of those teachers consider themselves technology novices.

"We had many bits and pieces that we thought could support a first-class program," Meadows explains. "We wanted to slow down, to assess, to distill lessons that could make a broad impact." The Hancock Leadership Center, which opened in 1993, is helping the district do just that. The staff-training facility comes equipped with a sleek multimedia lab where teachers regularly gather for professional development seminars and software tryouts.

Staff members praise Vinson for the freedom he gives schools and teachers to experiment with technology and such reform strategies as project-based learning, discipline-based arts, and multiage classrooms. The superintendent's slogan, they say, is, "Just do it right."

Vinson promoted Meadows, a former superintendent hired as the director of instruction in 1994, to head up the technology plan and ride herd on its countless technical and logistical details. Meadows, full of restless energy, spends much of his time tracking down answers to school board queries and asking vendors the tough questions. He's a pragmatist with a do-it-yourself attitude. In fact, he helped his son and another teenager install the new computers at the central office. He even diverted those PCs for two weeks to the high school's multimedia lab after a dispute with a vendor delayed delivery of the lab's computers. And he plans to ship some of the central office's old Macs to the district's Carver School for Innovations, a fast-track program where at-risk teenagers learn middle school science and language content while they catch up on deficient reading skills.

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