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Learning With Laptops: An Urban School Shows Gains

Not everyone thinks of Internet research as a third-grade skill. It is at East Rock Magnet School in New Haven, Connecticut, however. There, third and fourth graders are assigned laptops, and not only have test scores increased, but student motivation as well. Included: A description of laptop integration at East Rock Magnet School.

Within seconds, Robert, a fourth grader at East Rock Magnet School, located several important facts about the ocelot, the subject of a report-in-progress.

After pointing out a picture of the spotted jungle cat, Robert noted to a visitor that no two ocelots look alike, and their primary predators are hunters and poachers.

Music teacher Clay Selmont works with a student at East Rock Magnet School.
(Education World photo)

Unlike most fourth graders, though, Robert was not flipping through the pages of an encyclopedia on his hunt for ocelot information. Instead, he was clicking away on his wireless laptop, as were all of his classmates.

A kindergarten through eighth grade school in New Haven, Connecticut, East Rock's curriculum is focused on global issues and laptop integration. In 2002, the school was selected as one of five in the United States to participate in the federal Model Laptop Program, and received a $620,000 grant.

The laptop program has transformed learning at East Rock. Led by Domenic Grignano, the school's ever-energized, ever-focused technology facilitator/systems engineer, laptop use has become a way of life at the inner-city school. The program succeeds in large part because of the extensive training and ongoing technical support staff members receive, to prevent laptops from becoming appliances that sit on a shelf and collect dust.

"My job," Grignano said during a recent school tour, "is to make sure the laptops don't become toasters. You have to have a plan of action."


East Rock is a prime location for laptops. Students are chosen by lottery to attend East Rock, with preference given to siblings of current students. The school had been a global studies magnet school for several years before the laptops arrived in 2003, and already had networked its classroom desktop computers. With Grignano's help, teachers were integrating technology into the curriculum. (See In This School, Technology Nurtures Learning.")

East Rock, New Haven Schools at a Glance

East Rock Magnet School in New Haven, Connecticut, has about 825 students in grades K-8. The enrollment breakdown for 2003-2004 is:
* 55 percent African-American
* 25 percent Hispanic
* 12 percent white
* 4 percent Asian-American
* 4 percent identified as "other"

East Rock is a Title I school, and about 80 percent of students qualify for free or reduced lunch. Seven percent of students have limited English proficiency, and about 15 percent are identified as in need of special education services. The average class size is 25. Students in kindergarten through grade four are asked to wear uniforms.

The New Haven, Connecticut, public school district has 49 schools, including 29 elementary schools, nine middle schools, seven high schools, and four transitional schools, serving about 20,759 students. The enrollment breakdown is:
* 55 percent African-American
* 31 percent Hispanic
* 11 percent white
* 1.86 percent other
* 1.24 percent Asian-American
* 0.05 Native American

About 67.1 percent of district students qualify for free or reduced lunch.

(Source: New Haven Public Schools)

With the blessing of his principal, Grignano led the charge to apply for the federal grant for the laptop program, doing the research and submitting the paperwork. "We thought the laptops would help students do research and help improve test scores," principal Salvatore Punzo told Education World.

The grant covered the cost of 220 laptops, carts for storing and recharging the laptops, the wireless infrastructure, some software and professional development, and PLATO Orion, a Web-based program that aligned the school's curriculum with state and national standards. Grignano also sought and received a lot of donated software.

All third and fourth graders receive laptops to use in school. Fifth graders share laptops. Third through fifth grade teachers also have laptops, which they can take home. Third through fifth grades were chosen for greater laptop access to help those students prepare for the Connecticut State Mastery Tests, which are given in fourth and sixth grades, Grignano said. Eighth graders also take Mastery Tests, and sixth through eighth graders use desktop computers in the computer lab, library-media center, and in their classrooms.

In 2003, student scores on the Mastery Tests increased at all grade levels.

"The students receive a well-rounded education and the laptops play a part in that," Punzo said. "We try to give each child the best education possible, and make choices when we can."

The laptops are valuable resources for the global studies curriculum. Each grade from kindergarten through sixth spends the year studying a particular country -- including its history, culture, and food; students even get some basic language instruction. Fourth graders, for example, usually study Brazil, and sixth graders explore Japan.

Seventh and eighth graders follow a global curriculum, and must complete a research project. "We try to use the same countries every year, in part based on who is represented in ESL classes," said Punzo. This year, students from 26 countries attend the school. "The goal is to acclimate them to the idea that other people live differently, and also to make comparisons to our culture."

East Rock also serves as the district's New Arrival Center. Staff members screen entering students who speak little or no English, determine how much language assistance they need, and assign them to a class. Spanish-speaking students initially enroll in bilingual schools.

With all that going on, Punzo wanted extensive training for teachers, so they knew -- before the computers were introduced into the classrooms -- not only how to operate the laptops, but also how to use them for teaching. "We had to incorporate laptops into what we were doing," he said. "I insisted on training teachers. It works now and it will work, because teachers have been trained and we support them. Some teachers use laptops to prepare lessons at home. You can see the enthusiasm, the excitement, among teachers."


Teachers were taught to plan lessons so the laptops and software were tools, not distractions, Punzo said.

If teachers ask students to give a presentation using Power Point, teachers should be able to answer, "What is the purpose of Power Point? What are the goals of the lesson? Is it to build knowledge?" said Punzo. "You have to plan the lesson. Now, we see teachers using laptops for math, science, and writing. Many students keep their journals on their laptops."

Each week, teachers must complete an integrated curriculum content/technology log, which lists the curriculum content of a lesson, the technology used, and the NETS standards covered, Grignano said. As a former classroom teacher, he knows the types of lessons teachers need, and the areas they need to cover, and assists them with lesson plans. "The library-media center helps a lot; we do a lot of resource-based learning," Grignano added. The school's library-media center has more than 16,000 print and non-print materials.

Several teachers said that the training and ongoing support offered by the school has helped the laptop integration go smoothly, despite some misgivings at the beginning.

"I was not excited about the laptops," said third grade teacher Katherine Werth, recalling when teachers heard about the program. "I thought they would be another add-on. But I've been pleasantly surprised at how well this worked out. We had very good training and I'm much more comfortable than I was last year."

Fourth grade teacher Henrietta Szymolon said monthly training sessions continue to help her use the laptops more confidently and more extensively. "Teachers need training and time to apply the lessons," she said. "It's been very easy to incorporate the laptops into lessons. I use materials for worksheets; we work closely with the library/media center. We are constantly looking at technology standards to see where we need to be."


Equally important was teaching students to use the laptops, so in the beginning of the year, Grignano works with all third grade classes. "It takes exactly seven days to teach a third grader to use a laptop," he said. Each student has his or her own drive, and the laptops are networked. Certain Internet sites are blocked, but students have access to numerous kid-friendly research sites, including a search engine for magazine articles.

Teacher Patricia Reaves helps her fifth graders plan a "field trip" using laptops.
(Education World photo)

When they are done using their laptops, students park them on carts in each classroom, and plug them in, so the batteries recharge.

"They [students] were so excited when we first had four computers in the back of the rooms," said Grignano about the school's earlier technology set-up. "With the laptops, there is no comparison. You can't integrate lessons from four desktops."

School staff members decided not to let students bring the laptops home because of the possibility of theft, damage or loss, Grignano said, a decision that most parents welcomed. "They were thrilled," not to have the responsibility, he said.

Laptop assignments quickly became students' favorite, several teachers said.

"I've integrated them into a lot of content areas," said Werth. "I can use technology to enhance the lessons. The kids love them; they are so motivating."

"It's definitely easier to teach with them," added third grade teacher Lynn Kelly. "The kids are more eager to learn. We use them for reading. I'd like to use them for math, but the program is very regimented.

"They also help the children socially -- now students help one another."


On the morning of Education World's visit, Kelly's students were busy summarizing chapters from the book James and the Giant Peach, and researching insects related to the book. After finding some facts about an insect, each student downloaded a photo of a bug to go with his or her report.

"It's easier to look for things," one student said, about working on a laptop. "You can find pictures and articles about things that might not be in books," Hahn noted.

"I like using this every day," added his classmate, Frankie. "If you get a word wrong, it tells you. And you have more space to write."

The Pull of Magnet Schools

"I think more and more districts are moving toward magnet schools," said New Haven school district spokesperson Catherine Sullivan-DeCarlo. "I think people are getting away from the idea that public education is whatever is put on the plate in front of them."

East Rock is one of 20 magnet schools in the New Haven Public School District. Those schools serve more than 10,000 students, including 1,300 suburban students from 23 area towns. According to Sullivan-DeCarlo, however, not all New Haven's magnet schools are open to students from other districts.

Most of the district's magnet schools have waiting lists. For the 2004-05 school year, for example, 4,821 students applied for 2,249 openings.

New Haven has used magnet schools since the 1970s, and their popularity continues to grow. "There has been a big demand for them," Sullivan-DeCarlo told Education World. "Parents and students are interested in certain fields -- this opens up educational opportunities."

Music teacher Clay Selmont was helping students in Werth's third grade class use the laptops to find pictures of instruments they had studied, as well as Internet sites where they could hear and create music.

Nothing in his college education prepared him for teaching with computers, Selmont said, but that has not stopped him. Selmont said he loves music and computers, and is enjoying developing lessons students can do on their laptops. "This makes the job more fun," Selmont told Education World.

One student, Justin, located a site where he could move musical notes on a staff, and then listen to the tunes he created. A fan of the drums, Justin said he had researched drums on the Internet and "found a whole bunch of them."

For some teachers, computers were a way of life at home and in school; using laptops in the classroom came naturally to them.

"I grew up using computers, so I use my own laptop to plan lessons," said fourth grade teacher Kristen Rubino, a recent college graduate. "I check the students' journals online. Now we use them about 2.5 hours a day. We've added activities throughout the year."

As part of their study of Brazil, Rubino's students each researched a different rain forest animal. The assignment included completing a fact sheet about an animal, creating a diorama with the animal in it, preparing a Power Point presentation, and writing a one-to-two-page paper. Students will showcase their projects at a school-wide presentation.

Rubino said her students write more when they are using the laptops. "I like it better than writing [on paper]," said Jacob, 10, who was searching for facts about Komodo dragons. "It's faster and easier to find stuff. It's much easier and faster than books. And you can find lots of information when you get on Google."

Fifth graders from Patricia Reaves' class huddled over laptops in the library-media center planning a "field trip." The class had been studying bullying, and Reaves had asked them to use the laptops to find the earliest showing of the film at an area theater, calculate how much time the class would need to get there, (allowing time to buy snacks upon arrival) , figure out how much the trip was going to cost, and then write a letter to parents explaining the trip and seeking permission to attend.

Reaves said students also can find their assignments online, and e-mail then back to her when they are completed. "I love using the laptops," said Nia, 11. "It makes it much easier to do research."


East Rock's students and programs already have caught people's attention, in and outside of Connecticut. East Rock was one of three schools honored in 2003 by the Connecticut Department of Education for making substantial gains on the state's mastery test scores since 2000. A report released in November 2003, The Impact of PLATO Learning Technology, Inc., praised the school and staff members for their technology application and student gains early in the course of the program. "East Rock Magnet School should be considered a model site for technology integration," according to the report.

"East Rock provides a real good, grounded education," DeCarlo-Sullivan told Education World. "East Rock students stand out when they go on to high school."

For Punzo, the facts that the laptops offer students new and better ways to learn, and that achievement is up, make up the bottom line for the program. "It has made my job more exciting, more meaningful, and showed staff that with hard work and dedication, kids can learn," Punzo said. "We make sure we get results. If not, then we ask, 'Now, what do we do?' That's why I enjoy what I do so much."



Article by Ellen R. Delisio
Education World
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