Technology transforming education in Berks

By Anthony Orozco

Journalist for Berks Vital Signs

 

Governor Mifflin students are peering at the screens of their phones and tablets when suddenly an image of the Great Sphinx of Giza appears for them to examine.

A few miles away in the farmland of the Tulpehocken Area School District, children wear headsets to be virtually transported among a crowd of asylum seekers gathering at the U.S.-Mexico border.

At Southern Middle School in Reading, seventh-grade student Sharelle Scott concentrates on lines of computer code – delicate building blocks of a video game she creates in real time.

“I want to create my own game, a survival game or an open world, but you have to take time to realize what all goes into it,” Sharelle said.

Students at Southern Middle School in the Reading School District spend significant time
learning computer coding and working with technology. (Photo: Reading School District)

 

The scenes are common in classrooms across Berks County as districts invest further in teaching and using technology to make curricula more engaging and relevant.

Districts in recent years have spent millions of dollars to provide students with the tools of a modern education. New teaching strategies, blended online/in-person learning and cutting-edge technology have created an educational system that is drastically different from what their parents experienced just a few years ago. The next decade will show what students choose to do with what they're learning.

 These Southern Middle School students placed second out of 32 teams in a statewide competition to create a "What's So Cool About Manufacturing?" video. Berks County Community Foundation is a sponsor of the competition through its BB&T Economic Growth Fund. (Photo: Reading School District)

   

Tech Coaches

Ensuring that those technological tools are put to good use is a decidedly human job. School districts in Berks County had 125 technology and computer science positions during the 2017-18 school year, according to the Pennsylvania Department of Education’s latest job description data. Out of that pool, 19 are instructional technology specialists who are administrators tasked with helping teachers effectively and appropriately use tech in classrooms. They are sometimes referred to as “tech coaches.” 

Rick Lapi is a tech coach who has consulted for school districts all across the country and even helped rebuild tech infrastructure at schools in the British Virgin Islands after Hurricane Irma decimated the isles in 2017.

Lapi has worked as a Google-certified trainer for seven years and as an instructional technology coach at Governor Mifflin since for more than two years. Lapi said the big shifts in education due to tech have been:

  • Students having more responsibility to find answers and online resources.
  • Teachers becoming more like research coaches and guides to information, rather than sources for all knowledge.
  • Schools moving emphasis from information retention and regurgitation to critical thinking, research and analysis.

Governor MIfflin isn’t unique in this shift. Several districts in the county and across the country are focusing on the 21st century educational framework developed by the National Education Association. The framework has four principles:

  • Critical thinking
  • Communication
  • Collaboration
  • Creativity

Using these four principles, administrators and educators guide learning experiences that keep students engaged and inquisitive to become civically responsible “global citizens.” 

Tech coaches work one-on-one with teachers to see how they can make their lessons more collaborative and creative. They regularly attend trainings and research emerging classroom tech. But going into classrooms and telling educators where they are falling behind or what they should change to better utilize tech can be touchy. 

Allison Dedman is in her second year as technology professional development coordinator for the Reading School District.

 “A lot of what I did (at first) was building relationships and getting comfortable with working with teachers because it’s very different to have that kind of person come into your classroom and work with you,” she said. “We’re still peers so I did a lot of relationship-building and then helped them see the value in how technology can help with what they are already doing in class and how to take it a step further.”

Scott Hand, director of educational technology in the Kutztown Area School District, said online collaboration, assignments and research have spurred other changes.

“We no longer have just the 8-to-3 (p.m.) school day and classes are no longer confined to four walls and 40 minutes,” Hand said. “If a class is having a really great conversation about Shakespeare and the bell rings, that conversation doesn’t have to end. It can be picked up online outside of that class.”

 

Online learning

While schools are using myriad software programs for specialized courses and assignments, many districts rely heavily on Google Apps for Education for two big reasons:

  • They’re familiar with the products.
  • The products are free.

 Popular programs include G Suite, Google Docs and web hosting services. 

These tools allow classwork to not be bound by location or device. With that flexibility in mind, some districts have been taking a blended school-online approach that puts more responsibility in the hands of students.

For example, Mifflin has been dabbling with giving students flexibility with their course load. The district’s Student Centered Learning Experience (SCLE) also adds a layer of responsibility similar to that of higher education.

Mifflin piloted the program in the 2018-19 school year with 50 sophomore students. The SCLE gave students the option to take English, biology, geometry, world cultures, algebra II and chemistry mostly online. The students also had access to teachers so they could touch base if they needed more guidance. But for the most part, students were on their own.

The “blended” or “hybrid” course structure was seen as a success by the district and the format will be extended to more than 380 Mifflin high school students in the 2019-2020 school year.

Some students, though, do not attend a brick and mortar school at all. Most schools in Berks offer their own virtual academy or cyber school for students who live in their geographic district but cannot or do not want to physically attend school.

Wyomissing Area School District is the only district in Berks County not offering a cyber option. Dr. Melissa L. Woodard, assistant superintendent, said she is researching various options.

Many of the 145 students in the Wilson School District’s Virtual Academy have physical or mental health needs that make online-learning more appealing, said Deborah Chestnut, academy coordinator.

Wilson has offered blended and full-time online learning options for eight years.

More school districts are offering their own virtual academies and Chestnut said she is excited about Reading School District’s Virtual Academy, which launched last year.

“I’m really glad school districts are trying to run their own (virtual academies) because the amount of money that goes to an outside cyber school is a lot,” Chestnut said.

For years, district officials and school boards in Berks have lamented the cost they bear from cyber charter schools. Cyber charter school tuitions in Pennsylvania are mostly paid for by the districts in which the students live. The tuitions cost districts hundreds of thousands, and in some instances millions, of dollars.

Earlier this year, the state legislature introduced Senate Bill 34 and House Bill 526, which could mean saving brick-and-mortar schools from paying for cyber charter tuition.

 

Hardware, software

The introduction of laptops, 3D printers and professional-grade engineering software into Berks schools has been rapid and widespread. Just as no one would bat an eye at the use of a projector, calculator or printers, many administrators recognize tech as a necessity, not a luxury.

“People never ask if we have a book program or do we provide books because it’s understood books are needed,” Kutztown’s Scott Hand said. “The same goes for computers. Of course we should provide our students with computers.”

Pairing students with personal laptops or tablets has been a fixture in county schools for years, starting with Kutztown in 2004. The programs vary by district. In Reading, students are given in-school devices that they cannot take home. Some, such as Mifflin, provide devices to younger students solely for in-school use while allowing older students to take devices home.

Districts are using a variety of hardware, ranging from iPads to Google Chromebooks. One advantage that many districts expressed about Chromebooks when compared to other laptops was that all of the work done on the machine could easily be saved to the online cloud. If a student loses, damages or forgets to bring their school-issued Chromebook, they can pick up any other Chromebook and retrieve all of their work.

Some schools need more programs and computing power than a Chromebook can offer and opt to use machines like the MacBook so students can edit videos and run advanced software.

More than placing a piece of hardware in front of a kid’s face and patting themselves on the back, administrators are trying to calibrate the right balance of technology and traditional learning. Some districts, such as Twin Valley and Kutztown, have clear vision statements that state how they want to implement tech into learning.

Districts must be mindful, said Lauren Poutasse, Reading’s K-12 curriculum supervisor.

“We don’t really want to see kids sitting in front of a screen every day, all day,” she said. “That’s not the intent for adding technology to our classroom. It’s an enhancement to our curriculum, not a replacement of our curriculum.”

(Photo: Reading School District)   

Access, not devices, a hurdle for some

Having a device is only part of the equation. Some homes in pockets of the northwestern reaches of Tulpehocken Area School District still only have dial-up internet, according to Superintendent Andrew Netznik. High speed internet is also scarce in some parts of the rural Kutztown area.

The Morning Call reported several months ago that a surprising number of areas in Pennsylvania lack broadband internet access.

 

 
Click this map or click here for an interactive version put together by The Morning Call that shows internet access by municipality.

 

Tulpehocken tries to combat that challenge by providing free all-day wifi in school. Teachers also try to assign coursework that a student can download at the community library or, say, the Sheetz in Bethel Township.

Kutztown’s KT Connect program helps bridge the connectivity gap that some Kutztown families face, Hand said.

KT Connect loans high-speed internet hotspots for $35 per month. The district’s education foundation also offers a scholarship to provide a year of broadband internet at no cost to struggling families. Only four families currently use KT Connect.

Hand said many families in the district don’t identify themselves as needing internet access because they may have dial-up but don't realize the level of access they are missing out on with a high-speed connection.

 

Resources for districts

Dr. Christina Foehl, assistant director of the office of professional development and curriculum at the Berks County Intermediate Unit (BCIU), says the structures of classes have already dramatically changed due to technology.

The BCIU provides guidance to districts on how to best implement tech into classrooms, from offering workshops to taking phone calls from bewildered instructors.

The BCIU will also host its sixth annual Core Connections To Instruction & Technology Conference in June. The focus will be student-centered learning and equity. Some of the sessions will include how to nurture student innovation, how to best teach STEM to K-4th grade students, and how to integrate the use of drones in a lesson.

The BCIU also provides true technical support to most districts in the county. Nearly all of Berks’ 18 school districts use the BCIU’s Regional Wide Access Network, an internet service contract with a consortium model where costs are split among districts that opt in.

The only two districts in the county that don’t use RWAN are Twin Valley and Reading. Twin Valley is partly in Chester County and uses an access network in that county and Reading has its own network.

“In addition, (Reading School District) maintains two separate internet providers served from two separate locations within the district,” said IT director Jeff Haas. “The combination of a resilient WAN and completely separate internet providers (no shared paths/poles/streets) ensures the highest level of network/internet availability for our district.”

Reading has nearly 20,000 students and staff using its servers and, due to the district’s size and buying power, the district saw having its own network as a more effective option.

“Also noteworthy, we have not had an internet/WAN outage for over two years,” Haas said.

 

Future of tech in Berks education

Earlier this year, the state’s Department of Education selected Kutztown and the BCIU (and 23 other applicants across the state) to become tech and STEM hubs for surrounding districts. The commonwealth awarded nearly half a million dollars in PAsmart grant money to the two education entities to launch the Eastern Pennsylvania Innovation Catalyst (EPIC).

Through EPIC, Kutztown and the BCIU will provide supplemental STEM resources for nearly 70,000 students in Berks. For districts that either cannot or do not invest in certain devices, they may be able to access them through EPIC.

“A loaner (device) library available for the county will be housed here at the IU,” said Dr. Jill M. Hackman, executive director of the BCIU.

EPIC will also offer professional development for teachers, connecting them to researchers and tech/STEM experts to craft classrooms fit for the 21st century.

“The focus is having a ‘master teacher’ in each school district that understands best instructional practices when using the equipment, how to best engage your students,” Hackman said.

Tech coaches and school officials are anxious and excited to see which emerging technologies districts will be working with in the next 10 years. Many say, just as in the past, tech that now appears to be on the leading edge of innovation will become as commonplace as pencil sharpeners and rulers.

One recurring topic in the conversation about the future of education is integration of artificial intelligence, or AI. Heads of tech in several districts said they envision AI drastically changing how and when teachers identify students who are falling behind or what topic areas students are having the most trouble with.

The immense computational capacity of AI will likely provide an alternative to the hours of grading and review that teachers currently do to identify student performance trends and outliers.

How and when AI will be fully implemented into local classrooms is still unknown. Just as with the abacus, the calculator and the laptop, technology in the classroom will inevitably evolve.

Yet, with all of the expected changes brought by the future, there will also be constants, one of which will be educators striving to give their students the character, tools and support they need.

The shifting tides of technology are also demanding a shift in how schools and students think about education, Hand said.

Over the last decade, students made the dramatic shift from being consumers of content produced by technology to learning how to use technology to be producers of that content, Hand said.

Hand continued: “Going into the next 10 years, the new shift is having them be active in their community, in the world, and producing with a purpose, using the available media to be agents for positive change in society.”

 


 

Reading Public Library brings tech to kids

 

By Anthony Orozco

Journalist for Berks Vital Signs

 

In a city where access to tech devices and the internet may be limited or more difficult for many families, the Reading Public Library has emerged as a technological hub for the community.

The main library and its three branches offer free classes and opportunities for families, some specifically for students.

Internet & WiFi users at Reading Public Library (main library and three branches)
2016 83,999
2017 91,957
2018 97,371

 

K-6th grade                   

It is not unusual for the children’s department in the downtown main library to offer 70 after-school programs per month, many of them related to STEM (an interdisciplinary approach to learning where rigorous academic concepts are coupled with real-world lessons as students apply science, technology, engineering, and mathematics).

In April, there was a weekly science lab for students to learn and apply knowledge about engineering, chemistry and physics. “Slime Saturdays” invite children to create their own sticky, gooey creations while using skills such as measurement, observation and inquiry.

The hands-on activities are also complemented by six computer terminals, a library catalogue search terminal, two tablets and an “early learning station.” The early learning station features a number of programs that teach small children about science-related topics to build the student’s familiarity with a computer and typing.

 

7th - 12th grade

Other free classes teach Microsoft Office and how to effectively search and find information on the internet. The library also offers a “teen loft,” a space reserved for those of the appropriate age on the main library’s second floor.

One of the more successful programs the library has implemented is Girls Who Code, a nationwide nonprofit program that exposes girls to coding in hopes that they will pursue careers in tech.

Teens also learn block coding through an MIT-produced program called Scratch. With the program, teens are able to make their own simple video games within three sessions.

The library also offers programs that aim to prepare students for higher education or the workforce. Those programs focus on skills such as taking the SAT or building a resume.

 

On the street, in the community

The library has identified some areas of the city that are so far from a library branch that people are unlikely to visit, said Bronwen Gamble, library executive director.

But the library finds solutions.

RPL has two “mobile tech vans” obtained through grants from the Pennsylvania Department of Education and local funders.

The vans visit parks and playgrounds, connecting with kids who might not otherwise access a library. The vans also visit city locations housing federal early education Head Start programs, 12 senior living centers in Reading, and homeless shelters.

These distinctly-decorated vans are not bookmobiles.

(Photo: Reading Public Library)

Their digitally inspired paint jobs make that immediately apparent and their “Free Wifi” signs attract people eager to save data and potentially sign up for an ecard, which people can use to check out digital versions of books and movies. The vans also carry tablets, library materials, and some of the STEM class activities.

“Some kids have said to us, ‘I wish my science class was this fun,’” Gamble said. “It’s really cool that we can bring that to them where they are.”

Last summer, the vans brought free use of tech devices and Wifi to:
42 locations around the city.
1,400 children and teens.

 

 (Photo: Reading Public Library)

 


 

 

 As part of its 25th Anniversary Celebration in 2019, Berks County Community Foundation is producing a variety of information projects like this at Berks Vital Signs. A previous report focused on hunger in the community. More reports will be produced.

Berks Vital Signs provides information about our community that can be used to improve the local quality of life. The data sets at the website include a variety of ways to compare areas within the county, with surrounding counties, and with the state and nation. This site also serves as a repository for community research, making important reports and documents available in one location.

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