SALT LAKE CITY — Twenty years ago teachers could confidently say that if they taught students the curriculum they would be ready for life after high school, whether that was moving directly into the workforce or into college working toward a degree and career.
Today, in addition to math, English and science, schools are including technology in the subject matter, as both a tool to lean and a tool to be learned. Adding to the challenge is the need to overcome economic differences among students (and schools) as costly tech-driven learning becomes a regular part of the day.
"Knowing that some of my students don't have technology does change some things I do with assignments," Travis Steed said. He is a teacher at the Dual Immersion Academy charter school, a Spanish-English dual language elementary school in Salt Lake that teaches kindergarten through eighth grade.
Steed estimated that 20 percent of his students don't have Internet access. According to the National Center for Education Statistics in 2003 children in homes where the annual income was above $75,000 had a computer in the home 30 percent more often than children who lived in homes where the annual income was between $30,000 and $35,000.
"I really try and use class time for any technology assignments, but I let students know that the library is close and free, Steed said. "Students need to be familiar with this technology if they are ever to survive in a college setting."
Ensuring that students have access to the Internet and are taught to use the technology required in getting a job or going to college after high school is a challenge that the state, schools and private companies are trying to meet.
"Every decently paying job out there relies on a computer," said Curtis Linton, co-owner and vice president of School Improvement Network, a company that uses technology to help professional development among teachers. "Think about it in terms of free lunch. We recognized that food in a student's stomachs is beneficial to every student, why is it we can't look at technology in the same light?"
Linton said every student needs to have access to technology because that is fundamental to being productive after they graduate.
Comcast offers a low-cost, high-speed Internet program for low-income families who qualify for the free or reduced school lunch cost program, called Internet Essentials. The company distributed computer and low-cost internet access last week at Edison Elementary School.
This year the Utah Legislature passed the Smart School Act, a bill that created a pilot program for schools that are completely integrated with technology. The $3 million appropriated to the bill was funded with economic development money, and was awarded to a vendor to make three schools completely technologically ready for teachers and students.
"The smart school is designed so we go into a school and it is total technology or total tech., every kid has an electronic device," Smart School Act sponsor Sen. Jerry Stevenson said. " The school would be totally wired so that the teachers would be tied into the total tech process and the administration would be tied into the total tech process."
Three public schools in Utah were chosen to be pilot schools for the Smart School Technology Act. Dixon Middle School in Provo, Gunnison Valley Elementary School in Sanpete County and North Sevier High School in Salina.
The Smart School Technology Act was funded through the Governor's Office of Economic Development and the opportunity to convert the three schools into Smart Schools was awarded to a company called iSchool, a company that uses Apple technology, such as iPads, to enrich education.
"The key components of a smart school are simply this — one that you have really effective networks and the infrastructure in place before the technology goes live," iSchool chairman Tom Pitcher said. "Two more big components that I would like to put out there is one, Internet security and child safety become paramount when you have all of these devices in the hands of kids."
Pitcher said iSchool's expertise, and the whole reason it exists, is to facilitate a customized learning environment for each child.
"The biggest one … you look at the impact that it is having on the teachers," he said. "The way we look at the teachers that they are the portal into the students. That’s who's going to deliver all this into the classroom."
He said they prepare the students for the experience by training them on how to use the devices in the classroom and how to teach with them.
"The systems, the Internet security and the teacher training, now everything is ready to go there's only one final problem … and that is that we have to pay for it," Pitcher said.
Pitcher also said that while iSchool has worked with several states, because their program is only used in public schools, they have never worked with a state that used economic development money to fund the Smart Schools.
"We track statistics that show that right now Utah graduates 74 percent of its students, which is actually pretty good nationally," he said. " The only problem with that statistic is that by their sophomore year in college only 18 percent of the kids are enrolled in a college or university. They just aren't prepared for that experience and that's where it starts to hurt the state in its pocket book."
He said the same statistics show that if they could improve graduation rates by just 3 percent those graduates would produce over $20 million a year in state tax revenue.
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