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The Rebirth of School: Building Education Back Up Again

A young computer enthusiast tells how he's helping reinvent education after hurricanes Katrina and Rita.
Grace Rubenstein
Former senior producer at Edutopia
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Listen to Kevin Serveau audio. 1 | 2 | 3 | 4
Credit: Char Andrews

In Mississippi, they call Kevin Serveau the Cisco Kid.

At twenty-seven, he's the youngest, by a long shot, of eight Cisco Systems employees who have taken a year off from their regular jobs at the computer-networking company to help schools remake themselves in the storm-ravaged Gulf Coast.

When the TV show his nickname comes from aired in the 1950s, producers chose to make it the first series filmed in color, despite the fact that it had to be broadcast in black and white. Serveau and his colleagues also are stretching the boundaries of how we use technology; wielding interactive whiteboards and other digital tools, they're striving to reinvent education in a place where disaster has given schools a clean slate.

The hope is that, out of the destruction wreaked by hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2004, educators can create a technology-infused learning experience that becomes an example for schools across the country.

Before moving to Hattiesburg, Mississippi, in January, Serveau had worked at Cisco's San Jose, California, headquarters for six years, most recently as a project manager running Web-based training courses for the company's technical staff. Now he's using his computer expertise to help school officials wade through a sea of education-technology options and use their millions of dollars in storm-recovery donations in the smartest way possible to boost student learning.

Through Cisco's 21st Century Schools Initiative (21S) -- which aims to help transform formerly underperforming schools in the Gulf Coast region into models of modern education -- Serveau works with forty-one schools in and around Hattiesburg and in Jefferson Parish, Louisiana. He helps school officials test, select, and install products, train teachers, and finally measure the technology's effect on student achievement.

Serveau, who holds a bachelor's degree in computer engineering and a master's degree in education that focused on online teaching and learning, talks about instructional technology with the combined enthusiasm of a tech geek and a young teacher. He's immersed enough in the schools that he speaks like an educator, lacing his sentences with lingo such as "achievement data" and "project-based learning." The Red Bluff, California, native raves about Southern hospitality, though he could do without the ferocious summer storms -- lightning struck his apartment twice in one week in August.

The schools where Serveau works are far enough inland that they weren't physically devastated by the hurricanes; they were chosen for the 21S program due to their strong leadership and their interest in boosting the use of computers in instruction. For coastal schools the storms and floods completely destroyed, he says, it's still too soon to start talking about classroom technology.

Most of the technology Serveau and school officials have chosen hasn't been installed yet, let alone integrated into daily classroom experience. Children returning to school this fall found a few interactive whiteboards, but the network architecture, Internet telephones, and videoconferencing equipment are still to come. The real transformation of classroom experience, Serveau believes, will emerge over the course of this school year.

When we spoke recently, Serveau described his experience in Mississippi and his vision of how technology can transform education.

How receptive have you found the educators there to be toward new technology?

Part of the criteria for selecting the schools that we're working with was leaders that were really open to this. Given the circumstance -- we came in following the hurricane -- and everything that they've been having to do, with an influx of additional students, finding out where past students have gone, and building damage, it's a big thing for them to let us into the schools to do as major of an effort as we're doing.

It's clear that they're overwhelmed at times, because they have not only companies like Cisco offering assistance, but also federal and state assistance and other grants. They're really trying to manage all the resources and take advantage of these opportunities.

What do teachers and students say are their biggest goals and concerns?

Obviously, test scores are always an emphasis, but a big one that I've heard from schools is the engagement level. Some of the technologies that schools are starting to roll out really seem to have an immediate impact -- for instance, interactive whiteboards. Rather than asking students to come up to the board and having nobody raise their hand, everybody is actively participating and wants to come and try out the technology and use the digital pen to write on the board.

Kevin Serveau describes the effect of interactive whiteboards in the classroom.(1:11)

Have you had a chance to sit in class and see this happen?

Yes, there are a few teachers at our model school, Rowan Elementary School, that have been using the board since late last year. I went in to observe how they were working. A teacher was doing an exercise and got stuck, and a student immediately jumped in and said, "Go to this menu, go down to this, double click." You always hear about the generation of kids who grow up playing video games and are really adept with technology, but to see it at this young age -- this was probably a third- or fourth-grade class -- it really hits home that these are the kinds of tools and technologies they're used to and they want to be engaged with, and it's time for that stuff to be in the classroom.

When you first signed on to this fellowship, what did you expect to find on the Gulf Coast?

Because we were coming to an area that had been recently hit by a national disaster, and that has also traditionally ranked lower in education than other parts of the country, I expected to find not a lot of computers in the classrooms, maybe no connectivity to the Internet throughout the school. I was surprised to find that the Department of Education in Mississippi has a plan with all the districts so that they're all online, and most of the classrooms had at least a couple operational computers in the back of the room.

There's at least some level of awareness and use of the Internet in the schools; it's just that a lot of it wasn't built into the curriculum, and a lot of the training and support for teachers wasn't in place to help them use it as effectively as they could.

How apparent are the hurricane's effects now?

It's definitely had a lasting effect. All the grants and aid the schools have received have continued to overwhelm them with paperwork and other efforts. The schools and communities have done a great job of picking up after the storm and moving forward with a vision for rebuilding even better than before. I don't think it's really slowed them down at all, and if there is a silver lining to this, it's opportunities like this to rebuild and hope that these schools can serve as a model for others.

What's been the biggest surprise?

One of the biggest challenges in Mississippi is the size of the districts. They range from some that have eleven schools to one that is a one-school district. It's been difficult to coordinate our efforts among the districts and get collaboration between schools that traditionally have acted independently. They're getting to know each other and collaborating more, but that's definitely been a challenge. There are even instances where district offices for two districts are literally on the same street, but before this project they hadn't interacted.

What did you hope they'd be talking to each other about?

We're hoping to get the schools to set up professional-development communities so they can leverage each other's knowledge and best practices. We'd like to get all the schools that are working with interactive whiteboards to collaborate virtually and talk about interesting ways in which they're using them, and online resources that were helpful. If they're posting online resources that they built, other schools -- not only in Mississippi but also around the country -- can download those assets, and these folks can download assets that were created by other schools. That way, the schools can continue to grow and sustain the solutions that we're putting in today.

Kevin Serveau reflects on the differences between working in business and in schools.(1:04)

How do you anticipate that technology will change the students' experience?

Our hope is that it really transforms education and that students are not only engaged but also start to pick up a lot of the twenty-first-century skills that they'll need when they enter the workforce, which looks largely different than it did a generation ago, even though the classrooms look largely similar to the ones a generation ago, with the teacher in front of the room lecturing.

Using handheld devices or computer communication devices is going to be expected in the workforce, and I think that's going to give a lot of these students an upper hand over schools where they haven't adopted technology and students are coming out and having to learn those things.

Kevin Serveau describes how technology can enrich the classroom experience.(0:50)

What obstacles are there to getting technology put to regular use in class?

It's important to put teachers first and make sure teachers are comfortable with the technology. When you talk about all the solutions -- Internet phones, interactive whiteboards, streaming media -- it can quickly become overwhelming for teachers to take on this additional expectation that they'll transform the way they've been teaching for years. Training, professional learning communities, and sharing of best practices among teachers really help build that confidence. We've seen a lot of remnants of past technology that were put in the classroom with no real measurement or no real goal about how they were going to be integrated into the curriculum, and they're sitting in the corner collecting dust.

How much exposure do kids have to technology at home?

It varies from community to community, and we're working largely in areas where there is a lot of need, which is why we want the school to become the hub of the community so both parents and students can get exposure to those products. We have to think about the variance when we talk about solutions that would assume that everybody has an Internet connection at home.

For instance, one solution that seems to be popular at the schools is posting student information, like grades or homework assignments, online for parents to check. It's great if everybody has a computer at home, but we might use a telephone system for teachers to record a voice mail about what the homework is for the day and allow parents to access that from home.

School technology officials are inundated with product options. What advice would you give people who are trying to wade through these choices?

We hosted an event, the Art of the Possible, earlier this year where we brought in vendors and consultants to expose educators to what's out there, what's new, what's hot in education, and what research substantiates the claims they're making. One consultant we work with provides a database that schools can access to look up specific educational-technology programs and see what the research says about it, and how reliable the research is. That really helps wade through the sales pitches they will get. There is also some free government-funded information, like the What Works Clearinghouse, which we've recommended so they can make informed decisions.

Hear more from Kevin Serveau about how to apply business assessment tools to school technology decisions.1:13

What lessons have you learned that you would pass on to other schools?

Definitely the collaboration and sharing -- that's been a very valuable, indirect result of this project, because we're working with thirty-three schools and seven districts in Mississippi that ordinarily might not have had as close of an interaction as we've imposed on them. When they start to collaborate and share best practices, then they're consistently working on similar platforms and are able to help each other make decisions. There's a lot of redundancy in the programs we're trying, and you want them to not only learn from their own mistakes but also learn from others' mistakes and help build on that and be successful.

Did you have any assumptions that have changed through your experience?

The one thing that has exceeded its reputation is the Southern hospitality. We've been so welcomed here in this community. Doing work in Louisiana and driving home to Mississippi, we pass the state sign, where the state slogan is "Mississippi -- It's Like Coming Home," and that's been true from day one here. Based on the fact that we were coming to this area not only because of the hurricanes but also because of the need for focus on education, I was expecting to find very challenging situations with the basics in education and technology. I found that there are some very sharp people here, and they just needed an opportunity like this to focus their effort and work together to change things.

If you went home now, what would be the main story you'd tell your friends?

The world of education is something I hadn't had an insight into before, and I've really been intrigued by it and hope to continue to work with it in the future. The excitement and the engagement of kids, and the power of what technology can achieve -- you see an immediate impact and engagement level that you often don't find in a corporate world where technology is expected or it's used in a more mundane way. It's contagious, and it gets me excited about my job every day.

Grace Rubenstein is a senior producer at Edutopia.

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