A Union City Board of Education initiative that allows students to use computers during class and then take them home helps students learn more than just computer literacy.
"A laptop program in the schools gives the students the ability to take [their computers] home to use with their parents," said Board of Education Executive Director of Technology Gary Ramella last week. "This program allows students to be able to learn anytime and anywhere."
The program is in its fourth year at Thomas A. Edison Elementary School. It originally started there as a partnership with Microsoft and Toshiba. According to Edison School Media Specialist Maria Valente, the partnership has fizzled out and the program has been continued through the Board of Education.
On the high school level, the program, called Project Hiller in Union Hill and Project Bulldog at Emerson High School, began as a Board of Education initiative and is now in its third year.
"It began as a three-year initiative to develop technology-literate students and teachers," said Project Hiller Supervisor Dina Scacchetti, who added that the board has been able to fund the program through next year as well.
In the program, elementary school students take computer classes and high school students meet after school. They ultimately learn to use their computers for PowerPoint presentations, websites, and newsletters. Some of the students get to take laptop computers home to work on, while others can borrow personal computers to use at home for the duration of the school year.
Joining the program
Each year, about 40 freshmen and 20 new teachers are added to Project Hiller since it began three years ago. The school's first group of students are now juniors.
Students are first invited to meetings about the program and then have to submit a letter explaining why they are interested in taking part in it.
"The way they presented the program to us made it more interesting," said high school junior Zully Zamora, who is now in her third year with the program. "We also have more opportunity to get our work done."
The parents of the students play a large role in the selection in the elementary schools. Letters were sent to the parents about the program that listed a series of meeting dates at which parents could find out about the program.
The meetings continued until the faculty was able to choose the parents of 25 students that seemed interested in the program.
"We weeded out parents until we saw that we were going to get full parent cooperation," said Valente, explaining that the parents had to sign forms agreeing to maintain the computers.
"The students really need a willingness to participate," said Media Specialist and Coordinator of Project Hiller Bill Shapiro about one of the characteristics needed to be involved in the project. The students are chosen to represent a cross-section of the school's population. About half of the students are honor students, while the remaining half consists of other students including bilingual and special needs students.
"We don't want it just to be an elite group," said Scacchetti.
There are four students in the seventh grade class of the program who are from the bilingual program. Last year, three students in the bilingual program began the computer program speaking no English, but now speak fluently.
High school students are not selected for the program until about five weeks into the school year. This way, the freshmen entering the program can get used to the high school atmosphere.
"There are some students who are deemed honor students in eighth grade that when they get to high school may not be honor students anymore," said Shapiro.
Scacchetti said that many students experience the opposite. "Some kids turn around when they get to high school," she said.
Once in the program, students receive a laptop computer that is theirs for the four years that they are in Union Hill High School or the three years involved in elementary school. However, the high school students keep their laptops during summer and winter vacations, while the elementary students return theirs in June.
"As long as they are members in good standing of Project Hiller, they can keep the laptop," said Shapiro.
The students must also keep a certain grade point average to remain in good standing with the program.
"The students cannot get any D or F grades," said Shapiro.
Emerson High School also has a program called Project Bulldog. However, their program offers students desktop personal computers to use at home instead of laptops.
"They keep the computers at home rather than having to carry one back and forth," said Ramella.
Learning through technology
"The impetus is academic," said Scacchetti. "But we know [the students] are going to use the computers for other things as well."
Students can use the computers to send e-mail, surf the Internet or play games.
By the time these students graduate high school, they are able to create PowerPoint presentations, design their own websites and electronically distribute newsletters.
The website creation is taught in the second year of the high school. The students create websites that are then added to the Board of Education website.
"The students are responsible for the research, design and content of the website," said Shapiro. The third year students, besides creating and distributing electronic newsletters to the other members of the program, also work on multi-media presentations for each department and train the incoming freshmen members.
There is a mentorship program as well. Each teacher enrolled in the program is assigned two or three students to work with.
"Teachers and students get trained together," said Shapiro. "In many cases the students are teaching their teachers."
The students in the program agree with Shapiro.
"A lot of times, the teachers come to us for help," said Diya Abdeljabbar, a junior in the program. "We know a little bit more than them," said Alex Alvarado, a junior in the program.
On the elementary level, the program is mostly geared to focus on using Microsoft Office, which includes Microsoft Word, Excel and PowerPoint.
"The program does not require that we use the computers all day," said Edison School Laptop Program teacher John Bennetti. "But one way or another [the computer] always works its way in." The students in Bennetti's class use the computers to make PowerPoint presentations as their book reports and make charts and graphs on Excel.
These students also have access to the Internet.
"This is a huge plus," said Bennetti about access to the Internet. "I now have access to knowledge that I normally couldn't give [to the students]."
Edison School also offers parents the opportunity to learn how to use the computers as well. The school holds training classes twice a month.
"We have parent training so the parents can learn to use the same technology as their children," said Valente.
Testing the results
The faculty said the students have derived educational benefits from the program.
The students in the Union Hill project outscored the rest of the junior class on the HSPT test taken this year. One hundred percent of the students in the program passed the math portion of the test and about 90 percent of these students passed the writing and reading portions, teachers said.
At Edison School, Valente said that the students in the laptop program received the highest scores on their standardized tests and also have the lowest absentee rates in their grade level.
However, some of the benefits of this program cannot be measured by standardized testing. "What we cannot measure is the spillover," said Scacchetti. "Many of the students' friends have learned from this program as well."
The students find that responsibility is a large part of the program.
"We learn responsibility," said Alvarado. "We have to maintain the computer and printer for four years."
"We also have to maintain our grades to keep the computers," said a junior in the program, Lisette Martinez.
The students enrolled in the laptop programs are also open to opportunities that would not have normally been given to them.
Evelina Francisco, a junior with the program, will be representing Union Hill in February when she speaks to the National Association of Bilingual Education in Arizona about Project Hiller.
Students from the program at Edison School will also be attending a technology expo in New York to represent the program offered in their school. The expo asks schools to give demonstrations on innovative programs in technology.
"This program gives students the opportunity to see things that they wouldn't normally," said Bennetti, who will be giving a demonstration on electronic portfolios.