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Equipping for the digital age

Penna.'s grant program helps Pa.'s 501 districts buy laptops, printers, Web cams, scanners and more.

On a recent Friday, a freshmen class in Western Civ at Radnor High School blogged its reactions to an anti-war novel.

Upstairs, seniors in an Intellectual History seminar took a final exam on classroom laptops, searching the Internet for data to support their theories.

"The school is now everywhere,"

said Paul Wright, as he and fellow history teacher Carl Rosin monitored the exam.

Across the Main Line and Pennsylvania, the way teachers teach and students learn is undergoing a computer upgrade.

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, school districts on the Main Line have received $2.4 million in funding, $1.8 million of it in the 2007-08 school year.

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.

Haverford, Marple Newtown, Radnor, Lower Merion and Upper Merion school districts have received grants ranging from a low of $153,673 in the first year of the program to $507,899 in the second.

This year, Gov. Rendell is asking for an additional $101 million to finance the third year of the initiative. 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 include money for infrastructure to support the technology and for coaches to help train teachers.

Upper and Lower Merion School Districts received technology grants totaling $568,819 from Harrisburg in 2006-07, and the districts were funded again with a total of $600,000 in 2007-08.

Three Delaware County school districts received first-time funding in 2007-08. Haverford got $507,899, Marple Newtown $340,903, and Radnor $373,727.

"We planned for a year," said Joan Canuso, Radnor's director of instructional technology. "We wanted to make sure the wireless infrastructure in the building was ready to receive the technology."

The district bought 446 laptops and 14 carts to hold them, enough for 14 classrooms.

It acquired electronic white boards, similar to blackboards, except they can be "written on" with an electronic marker, and the material saved and printed out for later study.

The district purchased software that allows teachers to follow pupils' individual progress as they learn. The software also makes it possible for pupils to work on the same project and view one another's work.

The technology program was rolled out in February. It was a hit with students, many of whom were already computer-savvy.

Pedro Alfonso-Diaz, a senior from Wayne who was taking his online final May 30, called the classroom technology "really useful" now and in the future.

"It allows you to develop skills you will use in the workplace of the 21st century," he said. Plus, he said, the computer hookup "allows you to do immediate work, using the Internet, and it's a lot less-tedious."

"This is their world," Canuso said. "So we are making the most of tools they use in their free time to capture their interest for learning."

In Upper Merion, technology coach Kristin Hokanson said the technology has allowed students and teachers to "all speak the same language."

At Haverford High School, 30 classrooms now have their own laptops. Principal Jeff Nesbitt said that, as a result, students have become engaged in interactive problem-solving.

"Students have access to many more resources and are able to develop more meaningful, authentic assignments" than before technology was added, Nesbitt said.

Joe Violanti, technology director for Marple Newtown, said the district was thrilled with its upgrades.

"You walk by any classroom, and I can tell you students are very well-engaged. They are digital natives. That's how they want to learn.

"They don't want to have a teacher stand up in front and tell them about it."

The Program in the Area

Local recipients

School district   2006-07   2007-08

Haverford Township   0   $507,899

Lower Merion   $415,146   $300,000

Marple Newtown   0   $340,903

Radnor Township   0   $373,727

Upper Merion    $153,673   $300,000

SOURCE: Pennsylvania Department of Education