St. Paul schools have high-tech hopes for kids

  • Article by: ANTHONY LONETREE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: November 3, 2012 - 9:21 PM

Levy proposal includes funds for technology upgrades.

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St. Paul schools Superintendent Valeria Silva

Photo: David Joles, Star Tribune

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St. Paul Schools Superintendent Valeria Silva has in her sights a classroom of the future relying heavily on technology to give students the power to learn anytime, anywhere.

Now voters will help decide how quickly the changes come. On Tuesday's ballot is an eight-year levy proposal that would:

• Renew a $30-million-per-year investment in all-day kindergarten and other programs, funding that voters first approved six years ago.

• Add another $9 million per year for technology upgrades aimed at bringing teaching and learning to a more personal level -- an answer to the question posed by Ivar Nelson, district director of information technology: "How are we going to reach all of our kids?"

Silva's vision would allow struggling students to revisit course work and view videos electronically, and a bored high school junior to take classes in the morning, work an internship in the afternoon and take online courses at night.

The levy proposal is not about putting iPads or other devices in students' hands. That's a strategy that has been employed by other metro area districts and one that has created confusion for some St. Paul voters, Battle Creek Middle School teacher Jamin McKenzie said last week.

He's had to explain, he said, that technology is not just about hardware.

St. Paul plans to use the levy proceeds to develop curriculum, train teachers and, perhaps most significantly, create a "teaching and learning platform," a digital system connecting students, parents and teachers.

Students would have 24/7 access to electronic textbooks and interactive quizzes. Parents could track children's homework. Teachers would communicate with students and parents, and instructional peers too, sharing ideas when, for example, students "totally bomb a quiz," Nelson said.

'Oozing with technology'

Earlier this year, the district sought bids to develop the platform but has yet to select a firm to do the work.

If the levy is approved, and Silva's vision accelerated, the system would be fully operational by the levy's fifth year, Nelson said. He did not envision the tech funding requiring renewal in eight years.

An opposition group led by Greg Copeland, chairman of the St. Paul Republican City Committee, has objected to combining the $30 million renewal and $9 million technology proposal into a single ballot question.

But the proposal is backed by the St. Paul Area Chamber of Commerce and Mayor Chris Coleman, who sees the technology component as a means to provide teachers with the latest instructional techniques and to give successful students the resources to stay engaged.

McKenzie, who teaches earth science, worked with a colleague, Chris Alper-Leroux, to develop a website offering practice quizzes to students fearful of falling behind, plus a "Toybox" section for others with links to websites like TED: Ideas Worth Spreading and Newton's Apple.

The title, "Toybox," was selected to stress enjoyment, experimentation, a sense of play, he said.

To Nelson and Stephen Hoffman, the district's assistant director of academic innovation and technology integration, McKenzie's site captures the spirit of where the district is heading because every student can log in at anytime and learn in a proactive way.

McKenzie said that today's students are "oozing with technology" and that it was only natural for the district to develop a strategy to build on it. He has put lesson notes on iPods because he believes students find them "more aesthetically pleasing than a notebook."

But he supports putting a strong system in place before there's any talk of slapping a device into the hands of every student.

"The whole point is: How effectively is the school and teacher using it in the classroom?" McKenzie said. "It has to be seamless with how you do business in the classroom."

Anthony Lonetree • 651-925-5036

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