Technology keeps teachers up-to-date

Palisade High School teacher Scott Vogt works with Palisade High student Karma Mitchell in an International Baccalaureate class.


Facts about Palisade High School’s International Baccalaureate diploma program:

* The program has 24 teachers and 70 students.

* Students have to take classes in ninth and 10th grade that prepare them for the program, including finishing all of their requirements for a District 51 diploma.

* By the end of the program, all IB students earn both an International Baccalaureate diploma and a District 51 diploma.

* Students must complete an extended essay (at least 4,000 words long) by the fall of their 12th-grade year.

* In addition to taking classes in English, science, social studies, foreign language, math and fine arts, IB students take a Theory of Knowledge class and a Creativity, Action and Service class, which connects them with extracurricular activities and community service projects.

* District 51 has the only IB diploma program on the Western Slope. There are 29 IB diploma programs in Colorado.

Source: Mesa County Valley School District 51.

Textbooks can’t keep up when information changes as fast as technology allows. That’s why Shawn Gregg, a ninth-grade science teacher at Fruita 8–9 School, adapted his teaching techniques to keep up.

Last year, his students viewed real-time geological data online and screened minutes-old footage of the Haiti earthquake to study plate tectonics. He regularly looks up information on the Internet to stay more current than many printed materials now can and, when possible, he incorporates into the learning experience the devices students have grown up with, such as cell phones.

“I try to keep things as current and up-to-speed as possible,” Gregg said.

Gregg is just one teacher among many in School District 51 trying to keep pace with the demands of an increasingly connected world in order to prepare students to compete at a global level.

District 51 cut its instructional technology budget by 38 percent this year, but tried to keep technology in the classrooms by purchasing calculators before budget cuts hit, keeping computer access affordable through a four-year lease with Dell for 4,300 new computers and relying on the creativity of teachers.

The most obvious attempt by the district to offer students an education that keeps pace with international standards is the 3-year-old International Baccalaureate diploma program at Palisade High School.

The demanding program is centered in Geneva, Switzerland, and is offered worldwide in qualifying secondary schools. The two-year curriculum includes study in two languages, science, the arts, math and computer science, and individuals and societies, a category that includes economics, history, geography and other subjects.

The 30 graduates of the local program’s class of 2010 are entering college this fall with more than $2 million in scholarships and will attend prestigious schools such as Harvard and Northwestern.

District 51 also aimed for excellence when it streamlined reading and math curricula that had been adopted in 2007 and 2009, respectively.

The district offers individualized learning to all students in the classroom and offers extra intervention time during the day to students struggling with a particular subject.

Academic Options, the new name for the cluster of District 51’s alternative programs, range from a job-skills-focused Career Center to online learning to student centers at each high school that offer extra help to students who may be at risk of failing or dropping out of school.

The district renovated teacher evaluation standards in recent years and encourages teachers to share quality teaching techniques at meetings and in-service days.

School Board member Diann Rice said that communication needs to continue and flourish.

“There are some people who really have it figured out. To have those teachers teach other teachers what they’re doing is essential,” she said.

Rice said there are “pockets of excellence” at a variety of schools in the district, as evidenced by the sweeping range of Colorado Student Assessment Program test results in the district.

“Those places aren’t necessarily at the ‘high-end’ schools where the kids have all the advantages,” Rice said.

Many of the world’s most successful school systems have uniform curriculum standards, including Finland, Germany, Japan and Singapore. Colorado recently adopted national K–12 curriculum standards in math and language arts, and in December it adopted new state curriculum standards in 13 subjects. The state standards used syllabi from Singapore, one of the top performers in math, science and reading in international studies, and other countries. Colorado also used standards from high-performing states such as Massachusetts and Minnesota to create benchmarks each child should achieve in each subject at every grade level.

The standards outline what each student should learn in each subject in each grade before moving to the next grade.

For example, Colorado first-graders should know how to use grammar, punctuation and capitalization properly, and eighth-graders are expected to understand science concepts such as organisms passing genetics to offspring and how movement in the solar system affects seasons.

The math standards, at least in high school, ask students to learn certain information sooner, Palisade High School math teacher Ann Conaway said. Having clear definitions for what students should achieve before graduating high school should help students perform better compared to certain international peers, she said.

“We do have great math students,” Conaway said. “The countries that are ahead have national curriculums. I’m not saying the U.S. should have that, but having a national conversation on math looks like a good idea.”

Conaway doesn’t believe U.S. students deserve a label for being behind. U.S. students still score toward the top in many international education lists, and Schultz said the U.S. “still has schools that are the envy of the world.”

The U.S. in particular is envied for encouraging creative minds. The U.S. graduates more liberal-arts majors than any other country.

U.S. ninth-graders scored significantly above average among 28 countries in a 1999 Civic Education Study. U.S. students placed first for ability to critically interpret political information, according to a report from the National Governor’s Association, Achieve Inc., and the Council of Chief State School Officers.


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