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Projection Systems Take Center Stage

More new ways for the performing arts to enhance learning 

Performing Arts Center at Niagara Falls High School<br />
Performing Arts Center at Niagara Falls High School

Often left behind in the rush to add technology to classrooms, high-tech performing arts centers and lecture halls are taking a greater roll in enriching the education experience. A stage and a microphone are no longer enough. These spaces sport state-of-the-art interactive podiums and advanced projection systems that can combine any type of media. These three cutting-edge districts show how to use these systems as powerful educational tools.

Niagara Falls High Closes the Achievement Gap

The idea was bold. Could a dozen Wall Street bankers finance the construction of a public high school teeming with cool technology to help motivate students from a struggling economic region to learn? The answer was yes.

The $83 million Niagara Falls High School in New York opened in 2000 with some 2,400 students (70 percent of whom income-qualified for free lunch) and overflowing with new technology: laptops, smart boards, and document cameras in abundance. The facility even has its own TV studio.

“We’ve moved away from labs to ‘on the go’ technology,” says Mark Laurrie, chief educational administrator for the school. “The teachers all have palm pilots, rolling smart boards, and computer carts. The technology is where the kids are.” Twin jewels of the high school are its high-tech performing arts center (PAC) and its amphitheater. The 1,700-seat performing arts center is used for plays, dance recitals, and large group presentations. An annual highlight is the appearance of the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra, which enlists talented local middle and high school students to join with its musicians in its concert there each year. The performing arts center has theater-quality sound and lighting systems and a sophisticated projection system that integrates PowerPoint, DVD, video, and TV, with students working alongside teachers and trained technicians. Around the corner is a student-run TV studio where students learn how to run the PAC’s projection and lighting systems and produce educational programs for the county’s public access channel.

The school also has a 220-seat, tiered amphitheater with two touch-screen consoles that control portable smart boards, document presenters, VHS/DVD recordings, and closed-circuit TV. Each seat has computer connectivity and its own built-in microphone. The amphitheater is used for guest speakers, town meetings, and school board meetings. School officials recently began taking advantage of the building’s wireless connectivity and BoardDocs software to receive all agenda and supporting documentation electronically prior to the meeting.

More importantly, the amphitheater has great potential, admittedly underutilized to date, to enrich education through distance learning, Laurrie says. “On-demand programs (in the amphitheater) bring a new dimension to learning. It connects us to the world, with the very best specialists in their content fields,” Laurrie says. “For an inner-city school to have technology like this is a great equalizer.”

However, the impact of the high-tech performing arts center and amphitheater extends beyond their specific functions to the positive message they send about the value of the students themselves and the community’s commitment to their education.
“To have these beautiful facilities with all these amenities in the midst of local poverty tells the kids that their education is important and that we want nothing but the best for them,” Laurrie says. “We’ve given them confidence.”

The confidence is paying off. New York State last year recognized Niagara Falls High as a “rapidly improving high school that is closing the achievement gap.”The bankers’ bold experiment is paying off, too. They are continuing to receive their 5.5 percent annual interest payments on the 30-year loan they extended to build and equip the school.

Live! From Round Rock ISD

Everything about Texas is big. High school performing arts centers and lecture halls are no exception.

Take Round Rock ISD (Independent School District), for example. The performing arts center for the 39,000-student district in suburban Austin has both a 1,500-seat auditorium as well as a smaller 225-seat theater for lectures and meetings. Cutting-edge when it was built eight years ago, the complex is still very advanced with its automated robotic lighting fixtures, virtual training software, programmable light board, and expansive sound systems, all synchronized into one command center, says PAC facility manager Dean Baker.

Adjacent to McNeil High School, the PAC is heavily used by all four district high schools as well as the middle and elementary schools, and is typically booked for two or three events a day, with extensive use for musical performances and plays and a lot of music recordings, Baker adds.

In addition, the district converted a former band hall near Round Rock High School into a state-of-the-art lecture hall where school trustee meetings, guest speakers, or special conferences can be broadcast live on the district intranet, local cable, or over the Web via streaming video, according to Larry Barnett, longtime video services coordinator. One student used the lecture hall’s videoconferencing for an interview with a college in England. And several health classes have used the lecture hall to watch and interact with medical professionals—during an autopsy, in one case, and a knee operation in the other.
The 190-seat lecture hall has front and rear projectors and remote control robotic cameras that project the same PowerPoint and/or video presentations simultaneously on retractable 12-by-12-foot screens in the front and rear of the room so they can be viewed simultaneously by people facing opposite directions. Behind the scenes, the sophisticated control room drives everything from TV-studio quality lighting to cameras and mike levels. And the controls mix-and-match any media from PowerPoints to videos, whether the source is PC, DVD, or satellite downlink.

Funded through a bond issue, the hall was converted from its previous use for only $500,000, saving $1 million or more from the cost of a new building, Barnett says. The hall also functions as the district’s broadcasting hub, housing tech support staff for each campus and airing daily broadcasts from the elementary, middle, and high schools.

But Round Rock ISD merits center stage not only for its performing arts center and lecture hall but for its over-the-top, multi-channel effort to communicate with the greater school community. The district not only broadcasts live meetings on cable TV but runs its sessions in real-time streaming video on the Web. The reason? The local access cable station covers only half the school district, Barnett explains.

Behind the scenes, network upgrades also have improved the district’s ability to enrich the curriculum directly to the classroom—for example, with satellite feeds of NASA launches. And a storytime visit a decade ago by Laura Bush, wife of the then-governor, was broadcast to the entire elementary school. Today, the network could transmit Bush’s visit throughout the district, Barnett says.

Drama in Swampscott

After more than a decade of building taxpayer support for a new high school, Swampscott, Massachusetts, school boosters wanted to make sure the $56 million building was worth the wait. And indeed it was. The 800 students who streamed through its doors for the first time last September (2007) entered a gleaming new, all-wireless complex with $1.5 million in technology that enhanced every aspect of their learning.

A key underpinning was the $500,000 spent for 460 powerful new networked computers, which enable students to log on from any machine and combine work from multiple disciplines and formats to create a single report or presentation.
“We have a lot of new computers now so we can look up something quickly in class, and that helps discussions,” says senior Sam Kane. “And the computers help us get started on reports in class.”

A second huge improvement is the $150,000, 28-station language lab. From a master console, the teacher can pair students anywhere in the room for conversation, customize instruction for each student, assign individual grammar lessons, or download video and watch it as a class.

 One asset that benefits the whole student body, however, is the high-tech auditorium. For the first time, the auditorium is big enough for the entire school. And it has ceiling speakers to create surround sound, elaborate lighting systems (96 instruments compared with 24 in the old building), and 15 remote-control curtains, all controlled from the mixing board and sound system in the rear of the room. Behind the stage is the TV studio and the control room where the incoming audio and visual signals are received, edited, and processed. TV production students record performances, town meetings, and other events and learn how to edit, splice, and add finishing touches to film, says teacher Tom Reid. “The auditorium has made a huge difference,” adds drama director James Pearse. “It feels like we are going to a drama festival in our own school.”
At last, the school has a big enough stage to tackle any production and the lighting and sound equipment are sophisticated enough for kids to try out anything they can imagine, he says.

Kane, a senior studying TV production, says the auditorium and the adjacent TV studio in the new school create a “more professional” environment and the sound and lighting equipment is comparable to what he expects to
be using in college next year.

In addition to the auditorium, Swampscott High has a tiered, 75-seat lecture room for distance learning or large group discussions. The room has an interactive touch-screen podium for sending or receiving any media, a smart board, and outlets for laptops, although the building is wireless. The new building is so welcoming that the staff stays later and kids hang out after school. 

About the Author

Pamela Derringer is a contributing writer for Scholastic Adminstr@tor magazine.

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