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A second-grader in a Middletown, N.Y., school furrows her brow, searching her keyboard to find that funny number sign for her password. A third-grader holds her Chromebook aloft, hoping to speed the connection to a wireless router. A high school teacher puts his iPad in a drawer, having wasted precious minutes taking attendance on a new system with no success.

Educational technology, for all its potential, is riddled with glitches and start-up pains, especially when you’re among the first to trade pencils for tablets. Yet some pioneering school leaders insist that thrusting schools into the digital Petri dish is imperative for students’ success.

These leaders — like Middletown, N.Y. Superintendent Ken Eastwood — risk upsetting staff, parents and budget watchdogs by following their conviction that technology can help teachers target learning and help students master basic skills. They forge ahead, piloting programs, building digital curriculums, enabling enthusiastic teachers and dragging the reluctant ones into the new age.

Eastwood “eats, sleeps and breathes vision,” a colleague says. Hate him or love him, no one in the Middletown Enlarged City School District can deny his success: a 24-percent boost in graduation rates from his arrival in 2004 to 2013, and higher elementary and middle school scores, too, according to state data and a validation study.

School leaders
Superintendent Ken Eastwood asks second-grader Jocelyn Varela about her work on a digital lesson, which is part of the new blended learning program in New York’s Middletown Enlarged City School District. (Photo: Meghan E. Murphy)

Eastwood also brought $20 million to Middletown — an urban low-income district 70 miles north of New York City — when his 200-page plan earned one of just 16 federal Race to the Top district grants in 2012.

But, Eastwood cautions, “technology initiatives either fail or aren’t sustained because the leader comes and goes, or the jazz around the technology goes away.”

Despite calls from governors, senators, and the president for American education to shift into the digital age, technology-infused districts like Middletown exist only in pockets of the country. Among the reasons: limited high-speed internet access, inadequate teacher training, curriculum that isn’t synched to technology, and, of course, budget constraints.

“Without leadership we have a lot of random acts.” Karen Cator, president of Digital Promise.

About 63 percent of the country’s schools don’t have the required internet connectivity, according to EducationSuperHighway, a nonprofit that works to enable more schools to go high-speed.

And although Maine launched the first statewide one-student, one-laptop initiative back in 2002, today most schools nationwide still haven’t intertwined digital resources into learning, according to an annual survey from the Software Industry & Information Association. More schools are getting devices into classrooms, but they haven’t done the follow-through needed to help teachers make the best use of these devices.

“I would say we have a long way to go,” said Richard Culatta, director of the Office of Educational Technology at the U.S. Department of Education. “We have some really great models out there, but by far the majority of schools have not crossed that tipping point and we need to be able to get there.”

It’s up to leaders with vision and guts to tame this technological frontier.

On a typical day in Mauro Bruno’s Middletown classroom, a third of his fifth-grade students sit at laptops playing math games.

Eight others sit watching a digital lesson that Bruno crafted with an app called Keynote; his voice drifts down from a ceiling speaker, asking them to figure out the area of a square.

School leaders
A fifth grader at Maple Hill Elementary School works on a digital lesson as part of the new blended learning program in New York’s Middletown Enlarged City School District. (Photo: Meghan E. Murphy) Credit: Meghan E. Murphy

Then there’s Bruno himself, a teacher for 21 years, who sits in a cozy corner with three students explaining how to do three-dimensional math.

Early in his career, Bruno was one of the first teachers to get a desktop computer and a SMART Board in his classroom. But these tools essentially just replaced pencil, paper and chalkboards.

It wasn’t until Eastwood won federal money for blended learning that Bruno and 35 other teachers got the tools to be the district’s pilot team in transforming their classroom practices. Each participating teacher’s students got a Chromebook and online software that adapts to his or her skills. Teachers also got substantial collaboration time, training and support.

“The tendency for some teachers is to look at some technology as a new fad that’s going to go away,” Bruno said. “But if you’re going to put something in front of them and say, ‘Here are good reasons for using it,’ we’ll do it.”

Digital Divide

Digital education may be the future, but most American schools are far from ready. Our series examines the national effort to close the digital divide by connecting all American schools to high-speed Internet, and why so many schools still lag so far behind.

The Promise: Digital education is supposed to transform public education, but many schools can’t even get online

The Problem: Instead of getting ready for the tech revolution, schools are scaling back

The Solution: How can schools close the technology gap and how much will it cost?

To usher in digital learning, school leaders must get teachers on board, convincing everyone from eager millennials to experienced skeptics who have seen many fads come and go.

“When we think about leadership, we think about those people who are able to elicit action,” said Karen Cator, president of Digital Promise, a nonprofit that helps schools integrate technology. She defined them as “people who are able to share that vision and get many people bought in, so it isn’t just the leader at the top driving and pushing everyone to do these things.”

That work often requires a philosophical shift toward collaboration rather than hierarchy.

In Overland Park, Kan., Blue Valley School District superintendent Tom Trigg has been orchestrating a culture change emphasizing daily innovation. Trigg’s 22,000-student district has changed schedules and trained staff on how to embrace change and work together. Teachers now have many opportunities to collaborate, including one morning a week before high school students arrive, two planning periods a day for middle school teachers and 13 days where students leave early to provide time so elementary and middle school teachers can meet.

At the high school, social studies teachers used this time to create a game plan for teaching research and writing skills at each grade level. Teachers also regularly updated their teaching strategies using feedback from standardized tests, classroom assessments and student surveys.

“We are on a continual journey to create such a culture,” Trigg said. “Change is very difficult, and while there are ways to encourage acceptance of change, it is a long path.”

Leaders need fortitude on the long road to transformation. Baltimore County Public Schools, led by Superintendent S. Dallas Dance, first spent 13 months drafting a digital curriculum. Next year, 10 of the district’s 106 elementary schools will pilot the initiative, with devices for every child. The entire district won’t be online until 2017-18.

In a stagnant economy, contracting for a $205 million technology plan over seven years raised debates in Baltimore County. People asked why the district should spend money on devices rather than teachers.

“We had to build a case for how education has changed from even the time I was in school,” the 33-year-old Dance said. “We’re expecting kids be able to collaborate and problem-solve. How do you do that in a class of 30 kids unless you’re leveraging technology?”

School leaders
Superintendent Ken Eastwood is using a Race to the Top district grant to infuse technology into teaching and learning for students at New York’s Middletown Enlarged City School District. (Photo: Meghan E. Murphy)

Jackie Brewster, who heads the Baltimore County PTA Council, said Dance had welcomed questions while keeping sight of the long-term goal.

“It’s easy to change what you’re doing to make people happy, but as a real leader you need to follow through and move forward with your plan, because you know what your vision is,” Brewster said.

Leaders like Dance, Trigg and Eastwood share insights with each other through the League of Innovative Schools, a coalition of 46 members chosen by Digital Promise based on their pioneering technology efforts. League leaders meet at conferences and visit each other’s programs to decode how to make technology work in the classroom.

The federal education department is also working to document and share digital learning successes and failures. “We’ve got to help them see what’s working,” Culatta said.

Unless more leaders step up, educators say, digital education will remain only in pockets, in the classrooms of ambitious teachers willing to troll blogs and Twitter chats for lesson plans.

“Without leadership we have a lot of random acts,” Cator said.

This story is part of a series examining the digital divide in American schools. Read more about how technology is changing education.

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