If all goes according to plan, the next Tom Brokaw may emerge from Washington Communications and Technology Magnet School.
Washington is one of four district schools benefiting from a three-year, nearly $3-million magnet school grant from the U.S. Department of Education. Washington will receive roughly $600,000 during the next three years. The LeConte, Thousand Oaks and City of Franklin Microsociety schools will divvy up the remaining funds.
As a condition of the grant, Washington has chosen a particular theme for its school – communications and technology. School officials hope this focus will entice parents and children interested in radio, television, theater and high-tech wizardry, while improving student performance.
“Over the past couple of years, Washington hasn’t had the greatest reputation among parents in Berkeley,” said Bruce Simon, who worked as a teacher at Washington for two years before taking over as the school’s curriculum coordinator this year. “I think this will help make our school more attractive.”
Simon, working with Washington’s technology specialist, Joyce Knezevich, is developing relationships with local theaters and media outlets, such as Youth Radio and Berkeley Community Media, the local cable access station. He is also planning to purchase a whole slew of new technologies - ranging from digital cameras, to stage lights, to a powerful computer with a digital video editing system.
When the magnet program is fully in place, each grade will have its own particular communications focus. First graders, for instance, will concentrate on storytelling, third graders on drama, and fifth graders on video and television.
Each grade has already started taking steps toward its particular focus, but no program is in full swing yet - that won’t happen until all the proper technology, training and partnerships are in place.
Simon and Knezevich say they face several challenges in getting the system up and running, from their own inexperience as administrators to the red tape at district headquarters that prevents cost-effective purchases of some equipment.
But they do have one significant advantage. Simon and Knezevich are building on a strong technological culture at the school. Washington, like the other elementary and middle schools in the district, received an influx of computers in the late 90s through the Teacher Led Technology Challenge, a $6.5 million grant that ended last year.
Thanks in large part to Knezevich’s intensive work with the school’s teachers, Simon said, the Washington faculty took to the technology, and has been making heavy use of computers for several years already.
Teachers rotate small groups of students through computer sessions, provide children with small, simple computers called “Alpha Smarts” for data collection and story writing, and transfer images from their own computers to large televisions, conducting group lessons with specially designed software.
The students have responded well. Carressa Yearby, a fifth grader, has a particular affinity for Math Arena, a computer game show focused on math that pits classmates against each other and against the clock.
“It’s really fun, because you’re playing a game and learning math at the same time,” Yearby said. “And then you want to play again.”
Sarah Cowan, mother of two children at Washington, said the heavy presence of technology can be useful in providing disadvantaged students with access to computers they may not have at home. She also said it can spark children’s interest in relatively mundane subject matter.
But she emphasized that technology is only useful in the hands of talented teachers, and that an instructor need not use it to be effective. Cowan said both of her children had excellent kindergarten teachers at Washington, and one made heavy use of technology while one did not.
As to the planned emphasis for each grade, from storytelling to television production, Cowan said she sees them as a means to an end.
“I think a lot of the stated objectives for grade levels are bells and whistles,” Cowan said. “I don’t see them as essential to getting the education they need, it may be a means to getting that.”
Rita Kimball, principal of the Washington School, emphasizes that “technology by itself isn’t going to do anything for anybody,” in a statement echoed by Simon and Knezevich.
However, Kimball believes that the production of television and radio shows and other “real life work” will have a substantial effect on students’ education.
“If kids have real life work,” she said, “they absorb knowledge in a powerful way.”