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Declining Enrollment, Part 7: The Hiccups Of Expanding Technology In Vermont Schools

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Nina Keck
/
VPR
Suzanne Denis stands in the hallway of Whiting Elementary School, which functions as the school's storage and lunch serving area. The small school's efforts to expand technology have been hampered by their sluggish Internet service.

Technology is becoming increasingly important in education. But smaller enrollments, shrinking budgets and rural infrastructure have made incorporating technology more difficult for some schools than others.

In the final of our series on declining enrollment, we take a look at the role technology plays in the classroom and the challenges schools have in harnessing it.

It’s just before lunchtime and Suzanne Denis stands in the hallway of Whiting Elementary School. Many of the school's 42 students begin to hurry past.

“This is where we feed our students when the meals come,” she says. “They have their lockers and it’s the gateway from the front door to the preschool. It’s our multi-purpose room,” laughs Denis.

Denis wears many hats at the school, including technology coordinator. She ducks her head into a large nearby classroom. “This is a K-1-2 classroom,” she says. “There’s 11 students and we have [iPad] Minis in this classroom for computers.”

Third and fourth-graders just finished putting together PowerPoint presentations on the Grand Canyon, she says. 

And fifth and sixth graders at Whiting all use Chromebooks; laptops that store data in the cloud instead of in a bulky hard drive.

Susan Briere is technology coordinator for the Rutland Northeast Supervisory Union, which includes Whiting. “We’ve bought into Chromebooks,” she says. “They’re wonderful and they’re inexpensive, but you need to have Internet connectivity to use them to their fullest potential.”

"I think we get used to saying, 'Oh well, [the Internet] is down for now. Or it's slow,' and it just becomes the way things are and you try to accommodate that the best you can." - Ed Barnwell, principal at the Whiting School

And high-speed, reliable Internet service is something Whiting and nearby Sudbury elementary schools don’t have, says Briere.

Group technology training sessions don’t work well and she says teachers are worried about how they’ll administer the new Smarter Balanced assessment tests, which students take online as a group.

Principal Ed Barnwell says it’s frustrating. “I think we get used to saying, ‘Oh well, it’s down for now. Or it’s slow,’ and it just becomes the way things are and you try to accommodate that the best you can. I think people would love to have more memory and higher speed and more everything, but it’s not possible right now given the infrastructure we have in the area.”

OTT Communications is the Maine-based company that provides telephone and Internet service to about 3,000 customers in and around Whiting. Briere says she called the company’s general manager Ed Tisdale last year to complain about their Internet service and that he promised to look into upgrades, but she says she never heard back. 

Tisdale says he didn’t recall the conversation. But Briere says just this week, the company has offered a somewhat faster plan that the school hopes to begin using.

Peter Drescher, education technology coordinator for the Vermont Agency of Education, says that while Internet connections in Vermont have gotten faster, there are about a half dozen schools in outlying areas, like Whiting, with slow service. “Part of it, too, is having parents call their provider, saying you know, why can’t you provide [service] … some pressure that way,” says Drescher. “We want to push on this because we want all students to have this access.”

"It's very difficult to isolate technology as the winning factor in how students are reaching different levels of achievement." - Peter Drescher, education technology coordinator for the Vermont Agency of Education,

So how much are students with slower web connections losing out? And conversely, how much are well-connected students benefiting? Drescher admits that it's hard to know. “It’s very difficult to isolate technology as the winning factor in how students are reaching different levels of achievement, because it may be what they’re learning in class, their age, being more mature, those kinds of things. But it’s very difficult to isolate the technology piece,” adds Drescher.

Fair Haven Union, a high school with 450 students near the New York border might offer a good test case, however.

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Credit Nina Keck / VPR
Kim Ransom, business and technology teacher and yearbook advisor at Fair Haven, watches over as students help design the yearbook. This is the first year they have been able to design the entire yearbook digitally.

Kim Ransom teaches business and technology and advises students working on Fair Haven’s annual yearbook. This year, they’re assembling the entire yearbook digitally for the first time. She says the web based program they’re using to publish the book is allowing students to submit photos from their iPhones, and she says page layouts can be much more creative.

In 2010, Fair Haven Union received a $550,000 federal grant to boost low test scores. 

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Credit Nina Keck / VPR
Principal Brett Blanchard says Fair Haven Union invested as much of their Federal Grant as possible on technology, starting with their Internet infrastructure.

Principal Brett Blanchard says they invested as much of that money as possible on technology, starting with their Internet infrastructure. “Then, the really difficult logistical part was how do we get teachers, the educators and administrators, like me, up to speed. So that now that we have the pipeline, lets drive the right traffic down," he says.

Blanchard admits they made mistakes along the way. For instance, the costly iPads they purchased five years ago have not been as useful or sustainable as they’d hoped. And he says getting all his teachers on board has taken time. “I think it’s an adult comfort level,” says Blanchard. “There’s also a misunderstanding that students already know this stuff. They don’t.”

He says that although the students are brilliant at games, manipulating the screen and quickly finding things, they aren't so familiar with the things needed for skill development. "So if you were to say, ‘Let’s do a research report,’ that’s a blank set for a high percentage of students,” he says.

To help get his staff up to speed, the school hired a technology integration coach. The position was invaluable, says Blanchard, but not sustainable, and that staff will now have to help each other with tech issues going forward.

"We're at a turning point where really we need to bring the technology down to the teacher level, rather than having a specialist there all the time." - Susan Briere, technology coordinator for Rutland Northeast Supervisory Union

Susan Briere, the technology coordinator for Rutland Northeast Supervisory Union, says more extensive training opportunities involving technology are needed. And she says the more classroom oriented the better. “We’re at a turning point where really we need to bring the technology down to the teacher level, rather than having a specialist there all the time,” says Briere.

Peter Drescher of the Agency of Education agrees and says schools need to push that. “At the local level, it needs to be clear that that is a priority ... that teachers should move in this direction and here are some resources or here are some ways they can do it," he says.

Back at Fair Haven Union High School, students walk the halls between classes, many carrying the portable Chromebooks they use in the classroom and at home. 

In 2008, only 52 percent of Fair Haven 11th graders were meeting state reading standards. In 2014, that number jumped to 78 percent. Writing proficiency test scores nearly doubled in that time and math scores went from 14 percent meeting the standard to 43 percent.

Brett Blanchard hesitates when asked if the jump in test scores is due to the school’s increased investments in technology.

“It’s a significant piece," he says. "There’s never one panacea to solve this stuff  ... our students are doing way above the New England average in the area that matters most, which is improving inquiry.”

Perhaps an even bigger challenge he says will be to sustain their use of technology, since it’s so costly and changes so fast.  

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