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Rural Missouri Magazine

PCs & ABCs
The Knob Noster R-VIII School District launches its classrooms into the digital age

by Bob McEowen

Kasey Rowe and Bethany Pirillo, students in Jana Morrow’s fourth-grade class at Whiteman Elementary School, practice classroom exercises on handheld computer devices. The incorporation of computers and other technology into the classroom begins in the elementary school.

Passing through Knob Noster, it’s common to catch a glimpse of a B-2 stealth bomber flying to or from nearby Whiteman Air Force Base. The sight of the advanced aircraft in Missouri is thrilling, but there is an application of technology in the area that, in some ways, is even more remarkable.

The Knob Noster R-VIII School District, which serves 1,400 students in and around the military base, is setting a standard for technology in the classroom that few districts in Missouri can match.

Knob Noster High School provides a laptop computer for every student. School events are broadcast over the Internet to parents deployed overseas. Middle school children prepare reports using the same presentation software used by Fortune 500 companies. At the district’s two grade schools, games played on hand-held computers reinforce basic math and language skills and children learn to recognize and spell words with the aid of a high-tech “smart board.”

The district’s adoption of technology is so pervasive that eSchool News, an online and print advocate of computers in the classroom, recently named Knob Noster’s administrator one of the “Top-10 Tech-Savvy Superintendents” in the nation.

“The truth is, even though I get the award, most of it is just staying out of the way of people that want to do some things,” says Margaret Anderson, superintendent of the Knob Noster school district. “It’s facilitating the technology and listening to the vision of what people want to do.”

The vision for Knob Noster’s schools includes incorporating technology into nearly every aspect of the educational experience. The idea is not simply to teach students to use computers, but to train them to employ technology as a tool to gather information on their own.

“It’s not so much the hardware and the software, but really what’s happening in the classroom,” says Anderson, a member of West-Central Electric Cooperative. “We’re going from a teacher-directed classroom to a student-centered learning environment where the students have some control.”

The Knob Noster R-VIII School District earned national attention in 2008 by issuing a laptop computer to every student in the high school.

The district’s forays into the high-tech world of student-directed learning began with hand-held computers loaded with educational software. Originally deployed in upper-level classes, the palmtop devices have passed down through the age ranks as more sophisticated equipment was purchased for older students.

Today, MP3 music players allow students to hear words as they read. Document cameras are used in science classes to project tiny details onto a big screen. Large touch-screen monitors called smart boards replace traditional chalkboards.

The most extensive use of technology occurs in the districts three eMINTS classrooms. eMINTS — enhancing Missouri’s Instructional Networked Teaching Strategies — began as a technology-centered teaching project in 1997. The program, based in Columbia, is now used in 10 states and Australia. In 2007, Missouri funded 100 model eMINTS classrooms and Knob Noster received three of the grants.

The district’s eMINTS classrooms feature smart boards and a computer for every student. More importantly, each eMINTS teacher has completed two years of specialized training, learning to guide students on their own path of educational discovery.

“There is no ‘sage on the stage,’” says Monica Beglau, executive director for eMINTS. “What we’ve done is move to the ‘guide on the side,’ which is students taking more responsibility for their learning and making learning more centered on their interests and what motivates them.”

The approach, advocates say, is more in keeping with how adults learn and adapt to an ever-changing world. And that, they say, is as important as teaching students the basics of reading, writing and arithmetic — a mission the school’s state report card suggests Knob Noster has mastered.

A Knob Noster school bus passes by a B-52 Bomber on display at the east gate to Whiteman Air Force Base on its way to the middle school. The presence of the military base raises the expectation for the use of computers in the schools because parents understand and use technology in their Air Force duties.

“We are training them for jobs that aren’t even jobs yet. They have to have that technology base,” says LuAnna Ortiz, a fifth grade eMINTS teacher at Knob Noster Elementary. “If we leave that out of their education, we’re putting them so far behind the rest of the world.”

Anderson, a former technology coordinator at a Kansas City school, says because so many of her students’ parents serve in the military — where cutting-edge technology is the norm — it was relatively easy to enlist support for the district’s computerization initiatives.

“They see the value of technology and they see the possibilities for their kids. I think they are perhaps a little more supportive than other communities might be,” she says, adding that the wide experience and backgrounds of the district’s military residents helps them see the value of new ideas. “People come from other places and ask, ‘Hey, what about this?’”

One of the people who helped bring the high-tech vision to Knob Noster schools was Jeff Davis, a retired military computer expert who now serves as the district’s technology coordinator. It was Davis who built the modern computer network that connects the district’s buildings. The next big piece of the puzzle came when School Board President Jesse Sahlfeld attended an education conference in San Francisco and learned of a school, similar in size to Knob Noster, which provided laptop computers for all its high school students.

Sahlfeld brought the idea home and found ready reception with Davis, Anderson and high school Principal Royal Peterson.

“The first thing in your mind, is that you kind of look at it as a challenge, at least I did,” says Peterson, who attended college at Northwest Missouri State University, where every full-time student now receives a laptop computer. “I thought, wow, that’s neat. The challenge, the new frontier, and all the things that go along with it, was intriguing for me.”

The district applied for a grant to purchase laptops but was turned down. Anderson determined to reapply the following year, but the board decided to fund the project out of district reserves.

LuAnna Ortiz, a fifth-grade eMINTS teacher at Whiteman Elementary School, guides students Dempsey DeMars and Joseph Barney on a research project. The eMINTS program is based on a student-centered learning approach in which specially trained teachers serve as facilitators to direct students’ research and interest.

“The board said, ‘our kids will only be in high school for four years. You wait another year more kids will have graduated and fewer will have the opportunity, so let’s just start right now,’” Anderson recalls.

The district purchased 450 laptops, and set up charging and printing stations at various locations around the high school. Students began receiving the computers in October.

Unlike the eMINTS program, the introduction of laptop computers did not benefit from years of research and prior experience at other schools. The district was largely on its own when it came to handing over a $1,000 laptop to each student and deciding what they can and can’t do with it.

The school created a technology committee to address the use of the laptops. The committee, which now includes student representatives, drafted policies for what is and isn’t allowed. Internet connections flow through the district’s servers — even when students are accessing their parent’s home connection — and children are not allowed to view inappropriate content. Even sports, music and gaming sites are locked out during school hours. Students are not allowed to load any additional software on the machines and e-mail activity is not allowed.

Parents pay $18 a year for insurance against theft or fire, but a warranty contract covers accidental damage and other repairs. On-board tracking devices ensure that a stolen computer can be recovered.

More complicated than protecting the equipment has been determining how best to train teachers to use the computers effectively in the classroom.

“Gosh, could we have done more preparation? Absolutely,” Anderson says. “Instead we just sort of threw the teachers into the lion’s den and said, ‘These kids are coming with laptops. Try to use them.’

“And they have,” she says. “They’ve looked at their content and said, ‘OK, how can I use the laptops in my content area.’”

Although teachers may still be sorting out how best to use the computers, students are quickly finding ways to apply technology.

Knob Noster High School students Brian Cass and Rob McCarrick use their school-supplied labtop computers to prepare articles and photographs for the school yearbook. The computers were distributed to students in October of 2008.

“I’ve actually seen quite a few cases where the students know how to use it a lot more than the parents or teachers,” says Dustin Wallace, class president of Knob Noster High School’s junior class.

A lieutenant colonel in the school’s Air Force JROTC program, Wallace used his laptop and a Microsoft Excel spreadsheet to graph power changes to a bungee-powered catapult he and his Science Olympiad team created.

Just as Wallace’s catapult is nowhere as lethal as the armament at Whiteman Air Force base, the technology in use in the classrooms of the Knob Noster R-VIII School District is not nearly as advanced as the B-2 bomber that flies overhead. Still, the approach to education in the district represents the cutting edge of education, compared to how students are taught in many other places.

“Unfortunately, it’s too common that we see a method of teaching that is from the early 1900s,” says eMINT Director Beglau. “Many people could walk into a little red schoolhouse and be just as comfortable teaching there as our teachers are teaching today.”

It’s high time, she says, that other schools follow the example of the Knob Noster School District and adopt teaching methods that reflect the world we live in.

“We don’t walk into an office and use just a pencil or a set of books. We don’t do that any more,” she says.

Rural Missouri magazine - November 2014
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