Educator leads the way in bringing technology to classrooms
NORFOLK, Va. (AP) — Teachers were some of the loudest cynics when Berkley-Campostella Early Childhood Center won a grant that gave an iPad to every student.
Principal Doreatha White estimated 80% of her staff was against it. Most of the teachers at the school were older — two in their 40s were the youngest on staff — and they’d taught for decades without needing fancy technology. They pooh-poohed the plan that asked teachers to rethink how they teach, this time with Apple products.
“We’re not millennials over here,” White said.
White knew she couldn’t force it on teachers — to be successful, they’d have to buy in. So, the veteran administrator started with herself. She ran staff meetings using the iPad. She used enthusiastic teachers as examples and had them share with their colleagues what worked.
Slowly, she flipped the cynics into believers.
Four years later, the school is seen as a model not just in Norfolk but globally. White spent a week in December in Cupertino, California — home of Apple’s headquarters — talking with educators from around the world about the work being done at Berkley-Campostella. And in one of her last moves as principal before White retires at the end of December, she secured the grant for three more years, through 2022.
Her teachers are louder cheerleaders than White now. They credit her vision with reinvigorating their own careers but more importantly, with improving outcomes for children.
The students at Berkley-Campostella all qualify for preschool because they're considered “at risk” of falling behind later — some because they come from low-income families, some for other reasons. They enter the pre-K program behind age-level peers but leave at a level that blows past the district’s goal on a test that helps predict how they’ll do on third-grade reading Standards of Learning tests.
“She’s 10 years ahead of most people,” said Antwoin McKee, an interventionist at the school who does pull-outs with students who need extra help.
White has taught in Norfolk since 1986, almost her entire career. She grew up in North Carolina and taught there for five years before her husband’s job brought them to Hampton Roads.
White was an early tech adopter. In the third-grade class she taught at Willard Model Elementary, her principal asked her to pilot a program using IBM computers to teach writing.
“So there it’s 1991 and I have a huge server in my classroom and six big computers,” White said. “They said, just see how this works in your classroom.”
White thought classrooms could take advantage of the computers for more than just writing, and remembers telling the superintendent at the time so. He called her down to his office — White remembers thinking she was in trouble — and ended up promoting her, sending White to Chesterfield Academy as an assistant principal.
She was principal at the now-closed Dreamkeepers Academy when she received the Milken Educator Award, one of the top honors for teachers. Then in 2010 came the job at Berkley-Campostella.
White said she embraced working with 3- and 4-year-olds.
“The stigma is that it’s babysitting,” White said. “It’s not. Times have changed. Kindergarten is like first grade used to be, and preschool’s a lot like kindergarten used to be. … We’re basically teaching them how to think at a young age and how to think critically.”
White applied for the Apple partnership in 2015 on a whim. Out of the 114 selected, Berkley-Campostella was the only preschool program. Two years later, when Virginia adopted computer science standards for kindergarten through 12th grade, Berkley-Campostella preschoolers already were coding.
White and her administrative team were trained first, then trained the rest of the staff over the course of two months. They introduced the technology to students just as gradually.
The iPads are a small complement to what students would be doing ordinarily, White said. A teacher might project something on an iPad for 10 minutes, followed by 10 minutes of students working in groups and then 10 minutes of solo time on the device. Thirty minutes per day is the max, unless it’s Tuesday and students are in the “Teddy Bear Tech” lab. That’s where the Code-a-pillar lives, which students can program to go in different directions. On those days, they get a total of one hour’s screen time.
Each teacher uses the iPad in a different way, which is the goal, White said. In Debbie Talley’s classroom, 4-year-olds in oversized goggles used an iPad equipped with a microscope attachment to look up close at an egg soaked in vinegar — part of a lesson about how acids and bases interact where the eggshell dissolves, leaving a bouncy ball, more or less.
“I’m in teacher heaven,” Talley said.
White preaches “time on task,” teacher Karen Gregory said. So even snack time is treated like a learning opportunity. When dragonfruit was the snack of the day, teachers pulled up on their iPads pictures of where the fruit grows and talked to students about where it comes from.
White hadn’t planned to retire yet, but recovering from a bad car crash last year was harder than expected. For weeks, White and staff have been steeling themselves for her departure. She put off packing up her office ’til the last day. Until then, a retirement card on White’s desk, the note inside telling her “enjoy your newfound freedom,” was the only sign that it was imminent.
Gregory said she’s been hyper-aware of every “last” moment. On White’s last day, the two happened to pull into the parking lot at the same time that morning, just as they often do.
“This is the last time we’re walking in together,” Gregory remembered thinking.
White was on her second tissue by 9 a.m. on her last day, and so were many of the teachers.
“I’m just a big boy holding it in,” McKee said, before grabbing a tissue of his own.
That day, Gregory and White filmed one last morning announcement TV show — this one featuring the new principal, Beverly Ellis, who starts in January. After students belted the school’s pledge, their echoes heard down the hallway, White introduced Ellis to students. She wiped away tears as teachers presented her with a going-away gift.
Then, White took her replacement from classroom to classroom, showing off the school.
“I’m leaving something good,” she said. “We’ll be saying bye and hi at the same time.”