LA PLATA, Md. (Sept. 14, 2016)—Charles County Public Schools (CCPS) is launching several new programs and initiatives this school year geared at better infusing technology into curriculum and enhancing teaching and learning for students.
While students and teachers enjoyed their summer break, school system technology staff were busy working to increase Internet access and networking capabilities at all schools, centers and system buildings. According to Pete Cevenini, chief of technology for CCPS, changes were made to increase the bandwidth access, which helps to support new technologies and network access at schools. "We increased our bandwidth to handle a larger caseload. We have quadrupled access for users," he added.
The increased web capabilities allow CCPS to move forward with offering the Bring Your Own Device, or BYOD, program to students and teachers in all 36 schools. Schools that use BYOD for learning allow students and staff to use a personal device for approved instructional activities. These activities help to enhance the learning environment for students in which all have access to instruction designed around discovery, connectivity and experience. As part of the program, Internet permissions and social networking access have been customized for elementary, middle and high schools. Several schools and centers are currently participating in BYOD instructional activities.
The BYOD program isn't the only technology initiative supported by the increased network and Internet capabilities for the school system. New to sixth graders this school year is a Discovery Education online resource called Techbook. Techbooks are web-based interactive text books that feature multi-media learning components so students can better learn how to solve real-world problems, learn about complex topics and use inquiry-based activities to reinforce literacy and critical thinking skills.
Techbooks are being piloted at all middle schools in sixth grade mathematics, science and social studies classes. "We are very excited about this pilot program and are anticipating these new resources being very engaging for students. Techbooks have the unique ability to update information each year so the 'textbook' is always current," said Amy Hollstein, CCPS deputy superintendent.
Another component of this pilot program is an added bonus for teachers. All teachers using Techbook in classes this school year will soon receive a new laptop to support incorporating the content into lesson plans, student activities and assessments. All Techbooks can be accessed by any electronic device, making the content accessible by students, parents and teachers at any time.
Hollstein said Techbook teachers will receive their new laptops at an upcoming teacher training. "If the pilot is a success, we will move forward for Board approval and if the Board is in favor of adopting the textbook, we will consider the new techbook to replace existing textbooks," Hollstein added.
Another new resource available to middle school students this year is MobyMax, a web-based instructional resource for math, science and language arts classes that provides teachers with additional tools to differentiate lesson plans and activities for students at all ability levels. MobyMax also features an advanced assessment tool that teachers can use to better identify content and skill areas in which students struggle, enabling them to personalize learning even more and targeting gaps in specific learning areas.
Middle schoolers aren't the only students with access to new technology and enhanced instruction this year. In addition to the 26,300 students who started school on Aug. 29, a group of about 23 CCPS students opted to do so through a mix of online learning and regular classroom settings. These students enrolled in the school system's Virtual Academy (VA), a new offering this school year for high school students.
Based out of the Robert D. Stethem Educational Center, the Academy is available for sophomores, juniors and seniors who prefer a mix of online learning with direct classroom instruction as an alternative to the traditional school setting. Students who attend the VA are required to spend five consecutive hours per day at Stethem, Monday through Thursday, and complete the same requirements as all other CCPS high school students.
The Academy employs five full-time teachers who provide face-to-face instruction and support the online learning aspect of the program in which students use Apex Learning online courses. The courses are standards-based and provide a complete course of study that integrates real-world examples to help students apply knowledge. The courses are rigorous and designed to ensure that students are successful and engaged in active learning, while developing critical thinking skills to prepare them for college and careers.
VA students must commit to complete one full school year in the program and can transfer back to their assigned high school the following year. More than 30 course offerings are available and include English, Earth and space science, biology, chemistry, financial literacy and Algebra. Applications for this school year will be accepted until Sept. 30.
Another program the school system is planning to expand this year is virtual learning for home and hospital students and others who are not physically able to attend classes. Last school year, CCPS piloted the use of a programmable robot featuring a camera, iPad and adjustable pole, and combined its use with telepresence, or distance learning, technology. The technology provides an opportunity for a student who is not physically able to be in class to virtually participate in all lessons, class discussions and course content.
The student navigates the robot by using an app on a phone, tablet or computer from their home or hospital. The robot can maneuver through school hallways and in and out of classrooms on the adjustable pole, and students at school "see" their classmate through a live video feed on the attached iPad. The goal of the program is not only to provide all students with access to the educational setting, but to also prevent a disconnect between the student and school.
Middle and high school students aren't the only students exposed to new ways of learning this year through enhanced technology. Last Tuesday, CCPS welcomed the Class of 2030 to elementary schools across the county—prekindergarten students. During their open house events, some prekindergarten students not only met their teacher, but received an iPad for use in the classroom and at home as part of a new technology initiative geared at exposing younger learners to technology while boosting parental involvement.
Kristin Shields, director of Title I programs for CCPS, coordinated the implementation of the initiative and said the goal is to not only connect children with technology, but to support and encourage parental involvement. "Technology is an important part of children's education at home and school. Research shows that parental and family involvement increases academic achievement. Technology is a great learning tool for children and parents to use together," Shields said.
Parents and family members received basic iPad training so they could support use of the device at home. Parents were also encouraged to engage their child in conversations about what they were learning and work together on app activities. The iPads came preloaded with three free apps—Starfall, Breathe, Think, Do with Sesame Street, and PBS Parents Play and Learn—that focus on reading, mathematics and social skills. A committee of prekindergarten teachers and technology facilitators selected several apps for use on the iPads, which students will use at least every other week in class, and as part of activities at home with their parents and families.
All of the new initiatives and programs planned for this school year are part of Superintendent of Schools Kimberly Hill's focus on enhancing technology access, providing students with the skills necessary for their future in a technology and digitally-driven environment and providing teachers with the best tools for using multi-faceted approaches to reach children. Hill also recognizes the users behind these new resources and emphasized the importance of a strong teacher in the classroom.
"We will continue to be relentless in looking for innovative ways to increase student achievement and close achievement gaps. Technology is an effective tool to use in the classroom, but the significance of an outstanding teacher can never be replaced by technology. iPads, smartphones, video games, robots or whatever else the next cutting edge technological device is can never replace the influence of an outstanding teacher. We understand that and value the work that our teachers do each and every day to build positive relationships with our students," Hill said.