The technological age at Harry S Truman High School in Bristol Township means that public-speaking students such as Joe Juhas now use a video camera and a laptop to hone their skills.
Classrooms away, science student Kaitlin Brown learns about the boreal forest by using her computer to create a newsletter.
Across the county, there are similar stories. Virtual student elections in Bensalem; student projects using a computerized white board at Council Rock.
The latest and hottest in educational technology no longer needs an absentee note.
Much of the change comes courtesy of Classrooms for the Future, a three-year grant initiative designed to equip the state's high schools for the digital age. So far, $126.7 million in state grants and a small number of federal grants have been awarded to 303 of the state's 501 school districts.
"As time has evolved, so have the ways we educate our students," said Leah Harris, spokeswoman for the state Department of Education. "We step away from the blackboard and evolve with the technology that is evolving around us."
Funding is targeted for classrooms in the four core study areas: English, math, science and social studies. In the program's first two years, seven Bucks County districts and Bucks County Technical High School in Fairless Hills have received more than $5.39 million in funding.
The grants have been used to purchase laptops, printers, scanners, Web cams, electronic white boards, digital still cameras, and video cameras. The goal is for every Pennsylvania public high school to be part of the initiative by 2009.
Juhas, 18, used the new equipment with his classmates to star in an infomercial made for his public speaking class.
"It's so worth it," he said. "It gives me my own sense of creation, with no restrictions. It's so much more helpful than just words on a piece of paper."
In Bucks County, the school districts of Bensalem Township, Bristol Township, Central Bucks, Council Rock, Morrisville, Neshaminy and Pennsbury along with the technical high school have received grants ranging from a low of $29,756 in the first year of the program to $1.4 million in the second year.
This year, Gov. Rendell is asking for an additional $101 million to fund the third year of the initiative, Harris said. If the legislature approves funding for the next school year, additional grant awards will be announced in July or August, Harris said.
Grants were awarded to applicants based on their ability to implement the programs and the number of core-subject-area classrooms, Harris said. The grants come with funding built in to help with infrastructure to support the technology, and coaches to help train teachers.
"We are bridging education with the students' world," said Brian Suter, Classrooms for the Future project manager for the Neshaminy School District. "They go home at night and they're on Facebook. They're digital natives, and when they come into schools without technology, they're at a loss."
Before the gap can be bridged, teachers must know how to use the technology. Classrooms for the Future requires teachers to take a minimum of 30 hours of training annually.
Albert R. Funk, principal of Council Rock High School South, has found that initial apprehension on the part of some teachers eventually dissipates. Nathan C. Scott, assistant principal at Council Rock High School North, has seen a teacher struggle with the technology in front of students.
"The teacher came to me after class and said, 'I'm embarrassed,' " Scott said. "But I saw it as a positive. What I saw was kids making suggestions, and I saw a group of people learning together."
Though time-consuming, learning the new technology and using it is transforming the classroom, Pennsbury math teacher Trish Davis said. The most popular gadget among her students is the computerized white boards that make displaying lessons in front of a class a digital adventure.
"It's all so dynamic," Davis said. "I can
have them all on laptops doing the same thing that I'm doing it.
And the coolest thing is that I can see what they're doing
. . . .
No, you cannot shop for sneakers while you're supposed to be learning about Excel spreadsheets
A study of the Classrooms for the Future program's first year by Pennsylvania State University found that small-group and individual interaction between teachers and students had increased; lessons had moved away from work sheets toward "real world" topics; and the level of student engagement had gone up.
In the last several years, the state's technology-in-education ranking has jumped from 30th to ninth, according to Technology Counts, an annual report in Education Week magazine.
State officials hope to continue Classrooms for the Future beyond its initial three-year phase, Harris said. But districts are already making plans to maintain the equipment and continue to expand technology in case government funding stops.
"The last thing that anyone wants to happen is for these beautiful 3.5-pound machines [Apple iMacs] to turn into paperweights," said Joe Skubis, Classrooms for the Future coach in the Bristol Township School District.
The districts have no choice but to support it, said Christine Zervos, coordinator of community and business partnerships for Pennsbury. "The students," she said, "are already in a cyberworld."
The Program in Bucks County
School/school district 2006-07 2007-08
Bensalem School District $95,233 $589,123
Bristol Township School District 0 $401,062
Bucks County Technical H.S. 0 $402,024
Central Bucks School District 0 $1,421,865
Council Rock School District $29,756 $642,412
Morrisville School District 0 $104,150
Neshaminy School District 0 $536,765
Pennsbury School District 0 $1,176,034
Council Rock High School South will host a "Flip the Switch" open house to introduce the new technology program to the community. The event is scheduled for 12:45 to 2:35 p.m. Thursday at the school, 2002 Rock Way, Northampton. For more information, call 215-944-2936.