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From the Ground Up

In central Florida, Ocoee Middle School uses smart technology to turn education research into practice

Eighth-grade science teacher Cliff McInturff slips his wireless lariat microphone around his neck and launches into a lesson plan on science.

"OK, who knows about titanium?" McInturff asks. His amplified voice commands the classroom.

The students train their attention toward an 8-foot-square drop-down screen at the front of the room where the veteran teacher has displayed a live Web site from a ceiling-mounted projector connected to his computer. Inset into the projected image is a transparency — beamed to the screen by a document camera — on which McInturff writes notes to reinforce his lecture.

Welcome to Ocoee Middle School, a 1,470-student public school in fast-growing suburban central Florida. Here, a pioneering group of educators has reengineered the modern schoolhouse, using innovative technology and construction techniques to put sound education research into practice. The result is a school that is a model for cost-effective learning.

Under the leadership of Principal Kate Clark — and funded by Florida's "Smart Schools" initiative — Ocoee Middle School is a showcase for technologies designed to enhance student performance, streamline the management of student records, and foster better communication among administrators, faculty, and parents.

In addition to the instructional technology in classrooms, Ocoee Middle School takes advantage of a network and software infrastructure that allows the school to easily manage and track student data. At enrollment, students receive a bar-coded photo ID card that allows them to check out library books, pay for lunch — without anyone knowing if they're on a subsidized lunch program — and gain entry through the school's keyless security system.

McInturff uses another part of the school's data management system to upload his grades every night. Parents can log into the school's Web site and keep tabs on their kids' performance — without having to extract the information from a taciturn middle-schooler.

"Parent conferences have changed a lot," McInturff says. "Parents walk in the door knowing what the issues are. They're already up to speed. We start off talking about solutions."

Ocoee Middle's new technology has been in place for a little more than a year, meaning there has been only one round of standardized test results since the initiative began. The school's most recent scores were up modestly, but Principal Clark isn't ready yet to attribute the improvement to her high-tech classrooms.

Anecdotal results, however, are plentiful.

"There's a lot of learning going on here,'' says Clark, who has led the school since 1994. "The teachers love it. The parents love it, and I'll tell you one way how it's making a real difference with the students. It takes a lot less time for them to quiet down now after the bell rings. They walk into a classroom and they're engaged."

BUILDING A BETTER SCHOOL

Located about 15 miles west of downtown Orlando — and about 10 miles north of the sprawling Walt Disney World resort — Ocoee Middle School is part of the Orange County School District, the 14th largest school district in the country.

The story of how Ocoee Middle School came to serve as a demonstration site for innovative technology begins with a 1997 visit to the school by the late Florida Governor Lawton Chiles. At the time, the school was operating out of a series of portable classrooms surrounding a decrepit 1920s-era structure that started out as a rural high school. The governor was on a fact-finding mission to investigate how the state could wisely invest education resources to serve Florida's exploding student population.

After touring the old Ocoee Middle School, the plain-spoken Chiles, who had a reputation for colorful aphorisms, was quoted in the local paper as saying, "This school ought to be bombed."

Chiles returned to Tallahassee and worked with the state legislature to create the Smart Schools initiative. The idea was to reward school districts that could demonstrate an ability to deliver greater value for the school construction dollars parceled out by the state.

The Ocoee team responded with a "value engineering" approach, using innovative architectural techniques — including less-expensive concrete "tilt-up" construction. The rebuilt Ocoee Middle School now has classroom buildings divided into quadrants where teacher teams can divide or combine flex-space rooms according to their needs.

Developmental research was used to guide the entire design process. For example, each classroom was designed to use natural sunlight, which has been found to help students concentrate — and also reduces the electricity bill. What's more, every classroom provides voice amplification for the instructor, ensuring that each student is able to hear the teacher clearly. Now, every student gets a virtual front-row seat.

MAKING TECHNOLOGY WORK

At Ocoee, technology plays a large part in administration as well as instruction. For example, the school's student management software is designed to alleviate the headaches associated with data entry. Enrollment information for each student is entered only once, and then it flows electronically to the rest of the school's departments as needed. No longer are staff members required to perform double and triple entry of the same student data into disparate, incompatible databases.

"We probably save 30 to 35 minutes of staff time per student by not having to re-enter their information," Clark says.

This efficiency is made possible by the Schools Interoperability Framework (SIF), an industry standard that allows products from several different software vendors to share student data. Ocoee is a pilot school for the SIF initiative, and Clark works closely with the school's software partners (see box) to provide feedback on SIF's further evolution.

The tedium of taking attendance is alleviated by a software package that allows teachers to perform this task using their PC in the classroom. At Ocoee, the days of scanning electronic cards and entering attendance manually are long gone.

The school also borrows corporate-style computer management techniques to help facilitate student learning. Technology Coordinator Laura Beusse uses the ability to create so-called "roaming profiles" on the school's Windows server to allow students to take their computer desktop with them — no matter where they are in the school.

The roaming profiles allow students to log in at the school's media center, save their work, and then later log in again from their classroom — or any other location — and pick up exactly where they left off.

"Kids can even log in from home and get their desktop," Buesse says. "They get access to the same programs they have at school."

THINKING AHEAD

Despite being a showcase for effective school technology, Ocoee is in every other respect a typical public school. About 35 percent of Clark's students receive a free or subsidized lunch, and about 10 percent are enrolled in Spanish-language classes.

Teacher retention has improved substantially. Clark says teachers are now leaving Ocoee Middle School for family or personal reasons only — no longer because they are disappointed with the school or its resources.

As for McInturff, a 24-year teacher veteran and a former president of the Orange County Classroom Teachers Association, Ocoee Middle's new technology has left him feeling "renewed."

"I can make learning come alive for my students now and that's tremendously exciting," he says. "I used to tell my principal all the time: 'You know, I have six more years until I can retire.' I don't say that now."

About the Author

Joe Kilsheimer is a writer based in central Florida.

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