New technology helps Routt County schools strive for success | SteamboatToday.com

New technology helps Routt County schools strive for success

— Six years ago, James Earley wasn't ready to claim that the Hayden School District had technology that could match or surpass many other school districts on the Western Slope.

But in the Hayden High School computer lab last week, the district's technology director was comfortable making that declaration.

"When I first started here, there were 40 Macs that barely worked. That was all that was here," Earley said as students filled the hallways for the first day of school. "Today, everything has changed. I don't think there are many schools near us that have as much technology as we have here in Hayden."

In the lab, Earley pointed to several new pieces of equipment that he said are improving the learning environment for students. He fired up one of several new computers in the district this year and logged into a school-wide video-on-demand system that gives students and teachers access to 45,000 educational movies and documentaries.

"Today, I like to say we're the little school with the big technology," he said. "I'm very proud of how far we've come."

Drawing from a variety of funding sources this year that included the Steamboat Springs Education Fund Board, the Morgridge Family Foundation and the school district itself, Earley was able to secure new laptops for teachers and new educational software and equipment for students that he thinks will change the way they learn.

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"I'd like to say I see the grades improve because of the new equipment, but I don't measure it," he said. "What they do is increase student engagement, and it makes them want to learn."

Earley said there are about 2.2 students for every computer in the district. Every classroom in Hayden also boasts a Smart Board, many of which already were being used when classes started last week. Smart Boards are interactive whiteboards that can be paired with computers, among other uses.

Seventh- and eighth-grade science teacher Greg Richards spent his first day of class monitoring Doppler radar on his Smart Board, which helped track the rain clouds outside his classroom. He then used an interactive map to quiz his students about the weather pattern as it moved between Grand Junction and Salida. Down the hallway in Ty Zabel's world history class, the board was being used to quiz students on the location of Middle Eastern countries.

"This is going to be awesome," Zabel said about the new technology. "I really believe it's going to get these kids excited about learning."

And this year's tech improvements weren't limited to Hayden.

Funding new technology

This year, the Steamboat Springs Education Fund Board approved $50,000 worth of innovation grants that are being distributed to all three Routt County school districts.

The grants required that teachers develop their own proposals outlining how the technology would be used to benefit their classrooms.

Citing technology's potential to improve the learning experience of students in her special education class, Steamboat Springs Middle School resource teacher Erin Dargis successfully applied for a $7,500 grant from the Fund Board. She'll use the money to buy iPads.

"I found that they stimulate a student's learning and can increase their independence," she said about the popular tablet computer made by Apple. "They're more motivated to use it than read a textbook."

Later this month, Dargis will start to incorporate the iPads into her students' curriculum. In the meantime, the students are using one of the iPads that was purchased for the middle school staff this year.

"I've already noticed their keyboarding skills have increased," she said. "Math is also coming alive for them."

Measuring success

While teachers and principals haven't measured how the new technological tools are affecting their students' academic performance, some said they're working on ways to show those who funded the technology that the gadgets indeed are worth the cost.

At Soda Creek Elementary School in Steamboat, Principal Michele Miller said that teachers are just starting to learn about the new technologies they are introducing to students and that they'll be working on a way to quantify success.

"We haven't gotten to that level yet, but eventually I bet we could," she said.

She said Smart Boards and seven iPads given to the school's teachers this year already are being used to revamp the curriculum. Students are dissecting frogs digitally on the touchpad devices, and they're walking up to Smart Boards to participate in math lessons.

"I've observed multiple lessons where kids are using the Smart Boards, and I really feel they increase a student's engagement," Miller said.

Steamboat Springs Fund Board President Kristi Brown said Thursday that the schools must prove the tools the educators are purchasing with the grants are a benefit for students.

"Accountability is something that the Fund Board has felt very strongly about, and we're working to improve that," she said. "When the teachers apply for these grants, you'll see a lot of information about what the technology is going to be used for."

She said the board is continuing to receive positive feedback from teachers and principals about the impact of the new equipment like Smart Boards and iPads, and will work together to put more measuring tools in place that might give educators an idea of how they are affecting a student's academic performance.

"We've gotten great feedback so far, and it is evident these new tools are delivering curriculum in a more efficient manner while increasing a student's participation," Brown said.

— To reach Scott Franz, call 970-871-4210 or email ScottFranz@SteamboatToday.com

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