George Lucas Educational Foundation

From Curriculum to Communication, a School Immerses Itself in Tech

At Mary Scroggs Elementary School, every day is a technology day.
By Diane Curtis
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VIDEO: Students Get a Wired Education

Running Time: 8 min.

Editor's Note: Although most of the teachers interviewed for this article have moved on since it was published in 2002, the school continues to infuse technology throughout its curriculum.

When Chapel Hill, North Carolina, teacher Kathleen Eveleigh goes over the day's activities with her students, she does so with the gratifying knowledge that she is fulfilling a host of educational goals.

As she asks for examples of the day's highlights from her Mary Scroggs Elementary School kindergartners or first graders (all Mary Scroggs teachers loop, which means they teach the same group of students for two years in a row), she types their answers into a computer. Then the children follow along as she reads their dictation aloud. The students are honing both reading and writing skills in line with an approach called balanced literacy.

"Who has something to tell me about what we've done today? Ram. Some people went to the reading center to read books. Very good. James. There were two things in the mystery sock. One was a bug. We had a fantastic super day! Wow! That sounds so good."

Paper, Pencil, and User ID

The students also are getting a feel for the importance technology plays at the 567-student school, which is 71 percent white. When students start at Mary Scroggs, their school supplies include a user ID and a password for the school's computer network.

A Mary Scroggs student monitors the audio portion of the school's daily news show, Ribbit News.

Credit: Edutopia

The school received a major grant from BellSouth because of a commitment to integrate technology into the curriculum and a determination to close the digital divide. The grant also was contingent on using a "Power to Learn" approach to instruction, which uses brain research in determining different learning plans for students.

The Internet, a daily closed-circuit school television news show called Ribbit News (Mary Scroggs's mascot is a frog), wireless laptops, computers in every classroom, and software programs ranging from Inspiration to Software MacKiev's HyperStudio to Logic Blocks are an integral part of the learning package at the school, which enrolls students in grades preK-5.

Email gets heavy use, and has improved communication among teachers, administrators, parents, and students. Principal Paula McCarthy, who sends out a daily morning message via email to the teachers, notes that with just one click on the keyboard, she also can send messages to more than 90 percent of Mary Scroggs families.

To make sure no one lacks access to Mary Scroggs's technological advantages, families without the means to buy their own computers are loaned Internet-access devices for their homes. These gadgets, financed through the BellSouth, are not full computers (no data or applications can be stored), but they give students and their families access to a range of Internet sites, email, computer software, and the student's school folder.

Keeping Parents Informed

The Web summary of the day's events in Kathleen Eveleigh's class also promotes parental involvement, which in turn has been shown to lead to improved student achievement. Once Eveleigh and the class have read what the students dictated, it is put on the class webpage.

Peer helping, cooperative learning, and technology are essential elements of instruction at Mary Scroggs.

Credit: Edutopia

By the time many parents come to pick up their children, they already know the specifics of the day. Moms or dads or grandmas or babysitters can start conversations about the pictures their youngsters drew of Martin Luther King Jr. They can talk about the glories of bird-watching because they know that their student spied blue jays and mourning doves through homemade toilet-paper-roll binoculars that day. Or they can ask questions pertinent to a class visit by a naturalist.

No longer do the adults have to play a guessing game about what was learned at school. Some parents have their students read the summary for them when they get home.

Every one of Mary Scroggs's 29 teachers has a webpage that may include a daily or weekly newsletter, homework assignments, announcements, volunteer opportunities, student work, a list of recommended Web sites, and even pictures of a teacher's dog or Questions of the Week, like this one from the webpage of second-grade teacher James Nohe:

If you could have one grown-up job, what would it be?

  • United States President
  • Voice for a Cartoon Character
  • Professional Sports Star
  • Teacher
  • Actor/Actress
  • Soldier
  • Firefighter/Police Officer
  • Something Else

Students may vote and then see immediate results. (As of this writing, "Professional Sports Star" and "Something Else" were tied, each with 37.5 percent.)

Heavy Use of Email

The Mary Scroggs teacher webpages make it clear that this is not a school where parents will be made to feel sheepish or self-conscious about asking questions or wanting to be involved. Principal Paula McCarthy and the teachers and other staff make a special effort to let parents know that their input is not just welcome, it is crucial.

Parent Dorothy Setliff joins her son Sam in reading homework assignments teacher Julie Crawford Janes posts on the class webpage.

Credit: Edutopia

"Hello! Thank you for visiting our class Web site!" is the start of many teachers' webpages. They continue, "It is very important for teachers and parents to keep the lines of communication open. I look forward to getting to know all of you better! The best ways to reach me are via email or my school phone line. I will try my best to get back to you within 48 hours."

"I feel like I have a better connection with my students and my parents," says kindergarten and first-grade teacher Julie Crawford Janes. Besides using email for informal communication, Janes assigns email homework. "I can reply very easily to what they've written back to me. It's less paperwork. I don't have a stack of papers to go through that sometimes don't make it back home. It's just much easier to give them immediate feedback through the email."

The feeling is mutual: Parent Dorothy Setliff also praises the immediate feedback and the ease of getting answers without having to play phone tag.

"I'm very Internet connected," Setliff says. "I would much rather use email." She uses it for everything from telling the teacher who her son will be walking home from school with to asking homework questions.

Treating Teachers as Professionals

Janes says the last three years at Mary Scroggs out of a 12-year teaching career have been the best. A technology-rich environment is not the only reason. Teachers are shown they are valued in a variety of ways -- from verbal support, a say in such decisions as hiring, and the opportunity for collaboration with other teachers to having offices next to their classrooms with desks, phones, computers, and storage space.

Offices situated between two classrooms give teachers private space to work.

Credit: Edutopia

"We wanted them to see what an emphasis we put on teaching and teachers -- treating them as professionals, raising morale, providing them with the tools and the resources so that they can be the best they can," says Paula McCarthy. "I think typically, over the years teachers, have gotten by on a shoestring. They're told they're professionals but sometimes not always treated as professionals.

For teachers, it's a big deal to have a phone that they can use throughout the day either to communicate with parents or to be available to their own families," she adds.

The school also provides time for teachers in the same grades to plan together, pays leader teachers and curriculum specialists more, and pairs inexperienced and experienced teachers in the same office so that younger teachers have mentors at hand.

Collaboration, Not Competition

Before she came to Mary Scroggs, says Kathleen Eveleigh, she was frustrated because she would hear about other teachers collaborating, sharing, and talking about what they were doing in their classrooms, "and it wasn't happening in my career. I felt like there was more of a competitive atmosphere, where teacher was trying to outdo teacher."

Grade-level teachers meet every other Wednesday to plan and share ideas and resources.

Credit: Edutopia

When the school was built (it opened in 1999 as the fifth new school in the Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools in five years), the idea was to start from scratch. "When we designed the school, not only did we design a new facility, but we really designed a new program," says Superintendent Neil Pedersen, a 2001 national finalist for Superintendent of the Year.

"What we found previously when we opened new schools was teachers were not necessarily stretching and changing the status quo as we had hoped," he adds. "We really explored the current issues in education and developed a model for Mary Scroggs that is somewhat different from the model in our other elementary schools."

Technology was one of the differences. So, too, were looping, an average class size of 19 in exchange for fewer teacher assistants, block scheduling, and differentiated instruction, in which learning experiences are tailored to individual students' needs, strengths, and weaknesses.

Design Supports Academics

The school architecture was designed to reflect such innovation and respect for teachers as professionals. An office for two teachers situated between pairs of classrooms was one manifestation of the new mind-set.

Innovative architecture allows teacher Kathleen Eveleigh to guide her students in bird-watching from a porch connected to her classroom.

Credit: Edutopia

Others included the openness of the building and its natural light, project rooms and kitchens, wide corridors and stairwell nooks where couches or chairs or tables could be placed for reading or conferring, outdoor porches that were extensions of classrooms, and a two-story lobby that connects the two wings of the school and also is sometimes used for community functions. Rows of desks also have been replaced by tables for working together cooperatively or individually on projects.

In Phillip Thomas's fifth-grade class, for example, some students are working with volunteers on reading or math basics. Others are gathering information for a WebQuest project, in which the students are planning a stay and tour of Chapel Hill for people from around the country with different needs. One girl is using the phone in Thomas's office to call local restaurants in order to price meals.

The integrated learning plan that covers curriculum, learning spaces, and teacher support and training apparently works. Test scores have shown a steady increase over the years since the school opened. Mary Scroggs was designated one of the state's most improved schools in 2000 and in 2002 was named a North Carolina School of Excellence because more than 90 percent of the students passed end-of-grade tests with high marks.

A Team Effort

"We have great kids, terrific parents who are supportive, who volunteer and who fundraise for us," says Paula McCarthy, whose office is filled with frog replicas given to her by students and others. McCarthy even kissed a frog when the Mary Scroggs students met their book-reading goals.

Wireless laptop computers allow teachers to easily take advantage of technology.

Credit: Edutopia

We clearly have a very supportive central office and superintendent who gives us the latitude to design a school the way we think it should be," McCarthy says. "And I think most importantly, I don't feel I'm making unilateral decisions or leading the school by myself. It's a team effort. And that's a wonderful feeling."

Diane Curtis is a veteran education writer and a former editor for The George Lucas Educational Foundation.

Comments (97) Sign in or register to comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

Michael's picture

This sounds like a great school indeed, and seems to be embracing education reform. The whole design of the building and classrooms, curriculum, and integration of technology into the classrooms has proven successful in achievement scores. It is not only more beneficial for the students, but teachers and guardians see the practicality also. I enjoyed the section about teachers no longer in competition with each other, and they are now all on the same page and working together. I can however see the schools web page as confusing for some parents. If each of the students classes have an individual page with homework assignments, tests, help sections, materials, etc, that can be quite a bit of work for parents just to keep up with their childs day to day activities.

Lindsay's picture

This seems like the ideal Elementary that all teachers would love to be a part of. Because technology is consistently growing, I feel it's important for students to stay up to date on as much as the school district can afford. By using cheaper sites, if not free sites, such as Webquest that only cost teachers 27$ a year can offer great ways to actively involve the students in projects. Having teachers feel appreciated and treated like professionals makes teaching and using technology in their classroom much more fun for both students and the instructor! Having many options to expand lessons without losing focus on the subject allows a better atmosphere and can engage students in activities that will want them to learn more. By granting access to the internet and homework notifications through email to parents allows them to engage in their child's assignments and helps eliminate excuses for a halt in their child's learning outside the classroom. Hopefully this school is a role model for most districts and can be looked at as a positive impact on why schools should invest in technology upgrades.

Samantha's picture

This Elementary School appears to be the ideal place that I as an educator would love to work, as well as to send my children to attend school. I love the idea of "looping". I think that we should do more of that. One year is just not long enough to get to know your classmates. By the end of the year we are just getting to know our students, so being able to go on with them an extra year would be a great disvantage.
I think it is awesome that the student's supply list consists of their ID and password for the computer! It is wonderful that computers are given to parents that do not have the resources to purchase one. Great idea that internet sites, email, computer software and the student's school folders are readily available for parental access. I absolutely LOVE the web summary of the day's events. These summaries intitate conversations between the parents and children as well as keep the parents and teaching staff connected.

Emily's picture

The Mary Scroggs Elementary school sounds like a great place to teach. I think its great that every child has access to a laptop. They really get the parents involved. Its nice to see a school help the familes who can't afford a computer. This way they always have access to the teacher, what their child is learning, and the class web page. Thats a great idea! ALl of the teachers work together and collaborate rather than against eachother. It sounds like a great place for families, students, and teachers. They did a great job integrating technology. Technology is the future and its great they are teaching kids at such a young age!

nicci's picture

I think that Mary Scroggs Elementary sounds like a great place to be a student or a teacher. I believe that it is very important for children to learn about tehcnology at an early age, because they will probably need to use it their whole lives. It is great that students can take home internet devices if they do not have one at home. I think this is a great program and more schools should use it.

Betty K's picture
Betty K
Special Educator and mother

I love to hear these stories of success and collaboration. Technology has played a key role in reaching these goals by improving communication between teachers and colleagues, teachers and parents, and teachers and students. With or without technology, parents' involvement in their children's education will always be crucial for success.

As a mom, I always wonder how school was, what my children did in class, and what they learned. I wish my children's teachers could have a blog or another site where I can see projects, assignments, games, and all those wonderful websites they recommend parents, through tons of separate note papers, with resources to help our children to practice their lessons. It will be terrific to find all in the same place!!

As a teacher, it blew out my mind just thinking on having my own office next to my classroom!! I think the idea of raising the educational standards will be faced better with improving training for veteran teachers, provide better installations, and make available the right technology for the use of the professors and students. Based on this article and the Mary Scroggs Elementary School experience, these elements seem to be essential to improve students' tests scores.

Kim Roselli's picture
Kim Roselli
Graduate Student - Instructional Technology

Inspiring! It's motivating to see that schools CAN integrate technology, and that teachers are part of the process. I am against just putting computers in classrooms and saying technology is integrated. This is clearly not the case here. All of the stakeholders are in communication- (teacher,students, parents, admin). No one is left out because they cannot afford internet because the school provides internet access devices to people who need them. I also like that the grant that was given through Bell had stipulations that included using "brain research to get the best learning plans" because students needs are always being addressed. The fact that teachers are included and they collaborate together is important because it proves that their opinions and expertise are important to the learning process. So we have a wonderful situation where all parties are involved and connected. I am most impressed that the economic divide does not effect any student's learning or communication, which is a major proponent of distance education and technology education. Everyone, everywhere, can really have an equal education.

Magdalene's picture

I am really impressed with all that is going on in this school, especially with the treatment given the staff and the parental involvement through technology. This is because parents are always wondering what their kids learnt at school. I also like the collaboration and mentoring teacher's ideas which will bring more ideas for teaching and relieve the stress.

Jules Miles's picture
Jules Miles
IT consultant

It's great to hear about this successful technology integration. Technology will play an increasing role in the education of students. Thanks to schools like this, parents, teachers and students will get more aware. And other schools will have to follow soon.

dawn619's picture

My mindset has shifted lately in taking more technology grad classes this summer. It is more apparent than ever that technology is a necessity in preparing our students for the future. Students must have access to daily technology...anything less is a disservice to them. This elementary school is a great model of what technology integration should look like. Now...time to start writing some grants!

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