Ed-Tech Policy

‘Alternative’ School Sits Out Computer Craze

By Mary Ann Zehr — April 07, 1999 8 min read

Most schools would love to have more technology in their classrooms, if only they could afford it. But not here in the foothills of the Rockies, at David S. D’Evelyn Junior/Senior High School.

Though all of D’Evelyn’s classrooms have been wired to the Internet, only a couple actually have computers. That’s because educators at this “alternative” magnet school prefer a different instructional tool: the textbook.

The school’s teaching style may also seem somehow out of date. Teachers here don’t think of themselves as facilitators of student-centered learning, as is now in vogue, but as people who know more than their students and are convinced the best way to communicate that knowledge is through lectures.

“We’re just old-fashioned,” Thomas J. Synnott, D’Evelyn’s principal readily admitted. “We are a textbook-driven curriculum. We work real hard at getting the highest-quality textbook--and teachers should be using the textbook.”

So far, the approach seems to be working. Last year, D’Evelyn had the second-highest ACT scores in the 89,000-student Jefferson County, Colo., district. And parents in this town of 15,000, whose industry is dominated by the Coors Brewing Co., have taken notice. The 900-student magnet school has 216 students on next year’s waiting list for just seven slots that have not already been filled through a lottery.

“I think parents look at education and want it the way it was for them,” Rick Lopez, the area administrator for schools of choice in the Jefferson County schools, said of D’Evelyn’s popularity. “Parents like homework. They like single-class instruction. The model has been around forever.”

“Thirty years ago, the normal high school was very much like we are,” added Jack Moninger, an English teacher at D’Evelyn. “The change in education in 30 years has made this an unusual program. ... We happen to have people who want this kind of education.”

The Way We Were

Indeed, teaching and learning on a typical day here look much as they did decades ago.

  • Eighth graders sit in desks arranged in long straight rows, reading aloud the parts of the friar, Romeo, and Juliet’s nurse from Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet.”
  • A Spanish teacher standing behind a lectern reviews a list of vocabulary words and then discusses a short story with the whole class.
  • A 7th grade geography teacher assigns students to put a map, flag, and facts about a European country on a poster after finding at least three library books to use as sources.

The traditional approach extends to discipline. When the bell rings to begin each period, students are already sitting quietly in their seats, and teachers are standing in front of their classes, handing out graded papers.

“You can’t have a high-performing academic school unless you have an orderly environment,” said Kathi Pitzer, a parent on D’Evelyn’s steering committee who helped found the school in 1994.

Academic standards are high. D’Evelyn students must take at least three years of a foreign language to graduate, while their counterparts elsewhere in the Jefferson County district can graduate without taking any. They also need four years of mathematics; students in the rest of the district need only two years and can include less rigorous courses like pre-algebra and business math, which don’t count at D’Evelyn.

All students interviewed during a recent visit, particularly those who didn’t start at the school in 7th grade, said the D’Evelyn curriculum is challenging.

“The academic standards weren’t as high at the school I came from,” said Steve Hintz, a sophomore who transferred to D’Evelyn last year from a Roman Catholic school in Denver. He said he spends about two hours a night on homework.

Everything in Its Place

D’Evelyn is not devoid of computers. Students have regular access to them in two places: the school library and a computer lab, where each student is required to learn how to type and use a database and spreadsheet before he or she graduates. The school provides Internet access for students through nine multimedia computers in the library, and it offers an elective course on computer programming.

Nor are the school’s staff and students anti-technology. Almost all of the students and teachers have computers at home, though few teachers interviewed had Internet access there. Administrators use computers for school management and to communicate with the district’s central office. And some teachers give students the option of using Internet sources outside class in a limited way for reports.

But the prevailing view here is that computers should be kept in their place. And that place is not in the classroom for student use.

“Technology, while an important tool in our 20th-century world, is not part of the Liberal Arts,” the school’s description of courses says.

People interviewed at D’Evelyn view as negatives some of the same aspects of computer use that many other educators across the nation cite as benefits.

Carolyn DeRaad, a parent on D’Evelyn’s steering committee, was asked whether students at the school might miss out on the benefits of individualized instruction that computer software can offer. She replied: “If you’re doing individualized stuff, you’re not covering the material.”

Unless a teacher is working with a whole class together, Ms. DeRaad said, he or she is not giving all students in the class access to the same important knowledge.

“A computer doesn’t deliver knowledge,” she added. “There’s not a real mind at the other end. I see isolated facts delivered by computers, but teaching goes well beyond that. I don’t think a computer gives meaning to fact.”

When asked if D’Evelyn teachers without Internet access didn’t miss out on rich resources to support their classroom instruction, Ms. Pitzer of the steering committee said she views the Internet as a waste of time.

“We would rather that teachers focus on making good lessons, tutoring their kids, and grading essays,” she said.

History teacher Chris Baker seconded that view, saying that while he occasionally uses visuals from the World Wide Web in his lectures, he’s generally not impressed with it.

“A lot of the stuff is undocumented. It’s Joe Blow’s Web page,” he said.

Bubbles and Pantomime

Some students said they couldn’t say whether classroom computers would benefit them because they’d never had them. Others said they didn’t think they were missing anything.

“We really wouldn’t have any time to use the computers,” offered 13-year-old Amanda Fiscus, shortly before her 7th grade geography class.

Even students who love computers defended their teachers’ traditional pedagogy, dismissing the view that children who grow up in a glitzy media age don’t have the attention span for lectures.

“I’ve never had any problem sitting in a lecture and just taking notes,” said Will Kast, a 16-year-old junior who spends a lot of his spare time programming computers and plans to major in computer science in college. “Usually, the teachers do something fun--they try to make it interesting.”

Physics teacher Briant McKellips, for example, began a recent class on light and color by blowing soap bubbles. Then he used a variety of props, voice theatrics, and pantomime to show how light rays behave. He asked the students to apply what they were learning by observing light through prisms and spectroscopes, working together as a whole class.

And Mr. Baker, the history teacher, livened up a recent talk on the nation’s progressive era by having student volunteers demonstrate the “flying wedge,” a maneuver on the football field that was considered fair game in college sports in the early part of this century but is now illegal.

Lecture is the most efficient way for teachers to convey information, Ms. Pitzer said, and the approach is most likely to fail when a teacher isn’t knowledgeable about his or her subject. The school hires teachers, first and foremost, according to what they know, she said.

All but three D’Evelyn teachers are teaching only subjects in which they majored in college. The remaining three teach a subject in which they earned a minor. Slightly more than half have advanced degrees.

‘Too Much Work’

It’s not unusual for 7th and 8th grade teachers to require their students to repeat a class if they receive a D or worse. But if students fail at the high school level, they typically transfer from D’Evelyn to a school with lower academic standards, according to Mr. Synnott.

That practice takes a toll on D’Evelyn’s enrollment. Last year’s graduating class--the school’s first--numbered 68, fewer than half the 150 students who began in that class as 9th graders. This year, Mr. Synnott expects the school to graduate 87 students out of the 150 students who enrolled as 8th graders.

A current D’Evelyn student, 9th grader Beth Mahnke, said she’s poised to transfer from D’Evelyn because “it’s too much work.”

“My parents say high school should be the best time of your life. It’s not here,” she said.

Mr. Synnott said that while the school has been accused by some parents of being elitist, the label isn’t fair. Students usually transfer from D’Evelyn because they don’t want to meet the workload, not because they don’t have the ability to meet it, he said. Teachers work one-on-one with students who are having academic trouble during a daily schoolwide study hall, and the school provides additional professional tutoring for children who still struggle.

D’Evelyn also has run into criticism from parents of special education students, who expected separate classes or an altered curriculum for their children. Auditors commissioned by the school district examined the complaints. As a result, school administrators have promised to state more clearly that D’Evelyn doesn’t offer either of those options for special education students.

But for the most part, parents like what D’Evelyn offers, and not just because they’re on a nostalgia kick, Ms. Pitzer said.

She believes that her own children are getting a better education than she received and that other public schools would do well to learn from D’Evelyn’s success, particularly by limiting distractions--including computers--and expecting more of children.

“We don’t think every school in the country should look like this,” Ms. Pitzer said, “but every family should have the opportunity” to send their children to one.

A version of this article appeared in the April 07, 1999 edition of Education Week as ‘Alternative’ School Sits Out Computer Craze


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