Calistoga points the way in technology for schools

2011-07-14T00:00:00Z 2011-07-21T00:12:31Z Calistoga points the way in technology for schoolsSean Scully Napa Valley Register
July 14, 2011 12:00 am  • 

From a simple cup of coffee in a Calistoga bakery has sprung an idea that could change the lives of 16 children, and could go on to change the way all 6 million of California’s public school students are taught.

In January, Superintendent Esmeralda Mondragon met with Chuck McMinn, president of the nonprofit NapaLearns, to figure out a way to help a small group of pre-kindergartners whose families couldn’t afford private preschools yet who were not poor enough to qualify for state-funded classes.

Out popped a simple idea: why not try giving the kids educational technology to help get them ready for school?

The fruit of that conversation wrapped up late last week — an experimental class in which 16 4- and 5-year-olds spent two weeks learning their letters and numbers, and important social skills, armed with brand new iPad portable tablets.

“It’s magical,” said Tom Torlakson, California’s State Superintendent of Public Instruction, after a tour of the pilot class on Thursday. “It’s a great way to have students begin to learn languages in a rich way, but it also teaches them 21st-century skills, to use technology to improve themselves.”

The idea will expand to a county-wide program next summer and Torlakson said he intends to incorporate lessons from the experiment in a new state-wide educational plan.

For such a grand-sounding venture, the class itself was surprisingly unassuming. It looked pretty much like any preschool class, with blocks, toys, and books scattered around.

But there is a difference.

After reading a book to the class, teacher Kim Floyd asked students to walk up to one of the slim iPads and use their fingers to draw parts of an imaginary monster.

Later, she uses the same machine hooked to a projector to show a short animated version of another story, with words and cartoons flashing by on the screen as the children giggle at the silly pictures and noises.

In between, the kids sat at their desks, eagerly sketching their own imaginary creatures using a simple drawing program. At other times, the kids used their iPads to read books, or play educational games, part of an online package called “Fooststeps 2 Brilliance,” designed to teach small children language and number skills while entertaining them as well.

The technology doesn’t really change the basics of teaching preschool in terms of the kinds of things kids do or the sorts of lessons they learn, said Floyd, a veteran teacher from Yountville who came to Calistoga Elementary to lead the experimental class. Instead, it allows her to give more individual attention to students, since the software tracks the abilities of students, adjusts the games accordingly, and reports to the teacher how they are doing.

“In the olden days, I would have to teach to the middle of the class, pulling out kids who needed higher or lower attention,” she said.

Now she can progress more quickly and confidently through the lessons, knowing which kids are responding well and which need some extra help.

And the children can take control of their own education, she said. When they are done with a particular lesson, they are free to explore the learning software, read books, play games and fill their time. The kids have even discovered things about the computers she didn’t know.

One child was typing his spelling words in a colorful font she had never seen. When she asked him where it came from, he was delighted to teach his teacher something new.

“He found a drop-down menu I didn’t know about,” Floyd said. “He found this whole package of tools.”

The computers do not, however, replace traditional pre-school lessons. They still plant seeds to learn about nature, build with blocks to learn about shapes and structure, and read paper books.

“Because at this age, they’re not abstract learners,” Floyd said. “They’re concrete learners and they need concrete things.”

Parents seem pleased with the experiment. The children were allowed to take home the machines over one weekend, exposing the families to technology many could not afford. The children also seem to be more excited about learning.

“They seem to be catching onto things faster,” said parent Domi Caldrea, whose son Edgar is in the class.

Such technology doesn’t come cheap. The iPads for teacher and students cost about $25,000, money provided by NapaLearns. The expanded program next summer will cost about $175,000 for the technology alone.

The remainder of the cost was relatively modest, Mondragon said — about $3,000 to hire Floyd, a few thousand more for supplies and equipment. That cost was defrayed by a private fundraiser held in Calistoga in May that brought in about $8,000.

But whatever the cost, it was worth it, Mondragon said. Many of these children come to school with little background in English, and often the families cannot afford books and technology to give the children a head start on learning.

Without some preschool education, these children would be at a significant disadvantage relative to other students coming into Kindergarten, a gap that can be difficult to make up as children progress to higher grades.

“They would not be integrating quickly into the classroom quickly” in Kindergarten, she said. “To me that’s what it’s all about — giving them the confidence” to learn.

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