A Magnet for Great Minds
The Longfellow Arts and Technology Magnet Middle School built a groundbreaking instructional program — which budget cuts now threaten to end.
Here's a sure-fire formula for school success: Start with a small team of dedicated and talented staff members. Next, give them the freedom to create an innovative teaching program. Finally, provide sustainable funding so that the program can grow and expand.
To see what can be accomplished when all the elements of this formula are in place, look no further than the Longfellow Arts and Technology Magnet Middle School in Berkeley, California. Widely known for its success in teaching Java programming to middle-school students, Longfellow uses an interdisciplinary approach that weaves the arts and technology into every facet of instruction.
Here, computer programming is treated as a second language; it's not uncommon to find students writing their own computer games from scratch, learning critical problem-solving abilities and highly marketable job skills in the process. On Saturday mornings, students even bring their parents to a voluntary Java class where kids and adults develop cutting-edge programming proficiency side by side.
Longfellow's approach to technology is to have students apply real-world tools to a multitude of projects, often in collaboration with community organizations. For example, Longfellow students have researched and built Web sites for the U.S. Coast Guard and the Berkeley Symphony Orchestra, using a team approach common in high-tech workplaces.
A recipient of the prestigious Computerworld Smithsonian Honors Program award, Longfellow is also the only K㪤 school to be chosen to exhibit at the exclusive Association for Computing Machinery (ACM) global conference. At that conference last year, the Longfellow kids so impressed MIT's computer science lab director Michael Dertouzos that he pronounced some of them ready for college-level courses.
Behind these accomplishments lie the determined efforts of Technology Director Nancy Elnor, who has raised more than $80,000 in technology funds annually during her 14 years at the school, building Longfellow's technology program into a national model for middle schools.
INFUSED WITH THE ARTS
At first glance, Longfellow doesn't appear different from most urban middle schools. As a magnet school, the kids who come here are chosen by lottery, not ability; the only requirement for attendance is an expressed desire by each student to learn through a curriculum infused with arts and technology.
The school's staff has been selected based on their experience in these areas, says principal William Dwyer. His own academic background includes theater, music, and art. Similarly, Elnor is a classically trained concert pianist with a master's degree in computer science.
At Longfellow, exposure to arts and technology isn't optional; it's practically a part of the air the students breathe. Walk down a corridor and you're likely to bump into students practicing chamber music. Student artwork, created using sophisticated software, adorns the hallway walls.
Arts and technology have also been joined in the school's theater program. Longfellow, built in 1923 and recently renovated with federal funds earmarked for historic buildings, boasts a professional theater (originally a gym) with a seating capacity of 500. Students here use a television studio to film the school plays — in addition to building stage sets and props and running the lights and sound.
LEARNING IN JAVA
But it's what students do with technology, especially computer programming, that has drawn the most attention to Longfellow. Part of the credit goes to computer teacher and technician Tom Hunt. With his gray beard, ponytail, informal dress code, and soft-spoken ways, Hunt looks every bit the part of the Berkeley-bred computer guru that he is. Hunt teaches intermediate programming concepts to the seventh and eighth graders, and maintains the school's network of about 300 computers.
Students do their programming in a room full of Sun Ray "thin-client" computers donated by Sun Microsystems. Students can access their saved work and personal desktop settings from any workstation in the room.
It's crucial to teach students programming skills at an early age, when they have a natural aptitude for language and syntax, Hunt says: "They're still at an age when they can learn a language as a native." His firm belief is that computer programming languages tug at the same brain cells that French and German do.
"I suggested to the class that they write a game, and we decided on Tic Tac Toe. Then I said, 'OK, how do you play this game? The computer is not going to figure it out by watching you.'" The students realized they had to break the game down to its most basic steps and then write the algorithms that govern every move — not a trivial task. "If we're lucky, they'll have the game running three months from now," Hunt says.
Meanwhile, down the hall, Elnor is teaching a class in which students learn the basics of professional Web development — hand-coding HTML using a text editor — as part of a peer-mentoring program. "Eighth graders can be very good at solving problems, but they often have difficulty articulating the concepts," Elnor says. "That's why we have them teach the sixth graders, which forces them to think about and articulate the problems."
The students pair up and quickly go to work. "Imagine that writing HTML is like writing a recipe, except that it's written in a different language," eighth grader Sam Sobolevski tells sixth grader Emily Judd. "This part here tells the computer to put a picture on the page." With Sam's guidance, Emily has soon built a personal Web page from scratch in HTML, and both students are clearly elated at the results.
"I was pretty much computer-illiterate at the beginning of the school year," Sam says. "But it really wasn't hard to learn — there are a lot of good teachers here, and a lot of students who can teach you how to do stuff."
To teach the Java class, the school draws on the expertise of volunteer Guy Haas, Sun Microsystems' former chief technologist for K㪤 education. A 15-year veteran of Sun (where Java was invented) and a volunteer at Longfellow for the past three years, Haas now spends his time developing his own Java curriculum and refining ways to teach programming.
Despite the difficulty of the subject matter, the Saturday Java class is so popular there's a waiting list to participate. Part of the draw for kids is clearly the experience of learning side-by-side with a parent or other adult.
"It's nice to show the kids that Java is difficult for parents, too — even for the programmers," Hunt says.
AN UNCERTAIN FUTURE
The story of Longfellow's accomplishments is also a powerful reminder that even the most innovative school programs can't survive without proper funding and district support. In fact, Longfellow's acclaimed technology program is facing the prospect of extinction next school year.
Having recently discovered a $6 million budget deficit, the Berkeley Unified School District has made across-the-board cuts throughout the school system. For Longfellow, that means a total of roughly $350,000. With steep cutbacks in staff positions, elective courses, tech support, and the elimination of bus service, the school's magnet focus may not survive, Elnor says.
A somber mood hangs over the school during the week Scholastic Administr@tor comes to visit, as two-thirds of the staff have received notices of possible layoffs. Hunt's position is set to be eliminated, which means there will be no systems administration and no tech support next year. The vice principal was recently given notice. Dwyer, who has led the school for two years, has resigned and will depart at the end of the school year.
"I'm a creator, not a take-aparter," he says. "This is a program that should be growing, but I can't make the school grow [under these conditions]."
With the school's bus service eliminated, it is likely that most students will be drawn solely from the school's immediate geographic area, hurting both diversity and the shared student interest in arts and technology.
"It's very disappointing to us. What we were trying to do is reach out and bring students here who wanted to do the same kinds of things," Elnor says.
But despite the budgetary setbacks, it is clear that Elnor and her colleagues have hit upon a successful formula that can be replicated elsewhere — provided the key ingredients are in place. As Elnor says, "these kids wouldn't even know that programming was a career option if they weren't at a school like this."
For proof, consider what Longfellow student Elise Priewe wrote about her aspirations: "I don't want to marry one of those successful guys from Silicon Valley. I want to be one of those successful guys from Silicon Valley — except for the guy part, of course."
How can school administrators nurture and ensure the continued success of an innovative technology program? Technology Coordinator Nancy Elnor explains how:
- Set aside "sacred" money for technology.
The district's general fund must provide consistent funding for technology that cannot be diverted to other uses. Technology should account for at least 10 percent of the total budget.
- Provide clear and consistent technology leadership from the top.
School districts should designate someone at an assistant superintendent level to lead and provide high-level support for technology initiatives.
- Push for district-wide technology programs.
Sustaining a technology program must involve more than just one school. For success, the entire district has to adopt the program.
For more information, visit www.berkeley.k12.ca.us/OS/schools/middle/long.html.
Lars Kongshem is the senior editor of Scholastic Administrator.