TIP the Scales

A small-town school harnesses state funding to immerse students in learning and technology.

by / July 1, 2006
Fruitvale Independent School District (ISD) in Van Zandt County, Texas, serves a tiny town in a fruit-growing district on the Missouri Pacific Railroad. Of Fruitvale's roughly 450 residents, less than 5 percent above the age of 25 have a college degree. Approximately 60 percent of children in the school district fall into the free and reduced lunch category, a measure that places them in a low-income demographic.

Yet the 97 children at Fruitvale Middle School -- the only middle school in the district -- are ahead of their peers in some wealthier districts, thanks to the state-funded Technology Immersion Project (TIP).

The Texas Education Agency (TEA) introduced this research-based program to study the long-term effects of regular laptop use on student learning and achievement. The agency awarded grant money to 22 qualifying school districts to incorporate technology into the curriculum, and in every classroom.

Above all, said Anita Givens, senior director for instructional materials and educational technology at the TEA, the grant program measures any change in student engagement and student achievement.

Fruitvale ISD qualified for the TIP pilot program partly because of its rural location and low-income demographics. In spring 2004, the district was awarded a $364,000 TIP grant to immerse Fruitvale Middle School in technology. That grant specifically supplied laptop computers for every student and teacher.

To apply, schools were required to outline their ability to implement the project in core academic subjects, and to prove a proper level of participation from the school community. The TIP application also required that the winning school have a majority of low-income students.

The project is subsidized with No Child Left Behind Act, Title II, Part D funds, which are intended to enhance education through technology.

Ticket to Achievement
In a school district where only a handful of children in each classroom have Internet access at home, comprehensive access to technology at school can be a ticket to higher achievement.

When the TEA publicized the grant, Stan Surratt, superintendent of Fruitvale ISD, applied because Fruitvale Middle School houses the requisite grades six through eight.

In other districts, sixth grade is increasingly incorporated into elementary schools to give students another year to grow and develop before embarking on high-school style education with multiple classrooms and teachers.

"We figured that [trend] would eliminate quite a few schools at the outset," said Surratt. However, it was Fruitvale's economic situation that pushed its school district into the winning group. "We also have a high percentage of economically disadvantaged children, and knew we'd have a good chance of qualifying."

Fruitvale ISD formed a collaborative group with two other schools in east Texas to submit the grant application. In the first grant cycle, Fruitvale Middle School was chosen as an immersed technology school, with the other two schools serving as the control schools.

Immersed technology schools are expected to use 25 percent of the grant money for teacher training and in-school services to help them transform the school into a technology center. Immersion schools were instructed to adapt their normal teaching and administrative procedures where necessary to incorporate technology into the curriculum and classroom instruction. The grant money was also used to hire outside contractors for in-school training.

Control schools were given $50,000 each to spend at their discretion, with the agreement not to immerse their campus with technology or spend the money on computers or technology training. The state education agency wanted to compare student achievement in schools with technology immersion versus business as usual.

Structured with immersion programs and control schools, the TIP grant "is really like a federal grant," said Surratt, who explained the long-term research component of the program. In each school, children receive additional testing, and along with teachers, are expected to fill out surveys regularly. The state's education agency visits the schools at least annually to assess the TIP implementation and results. Evaluation is ongoing, and Surratt expects more comprehensive research results at the end of the grant program.

"I have a feeling they'll add more immersion schools and filter them to get a long-range study, even after we are removed from the program, to see how immersion affects learning."

Surratt said the next two years will be a continuation of technology training and regular computer use in the classroom.

"We have the hardware in place, so we are now looking at some different software. We will have to replace or repair laptops as we go along, but mainly will focus our attention on continuous teacher training and enhancing our curriculum with online resources."

The TEA's Givens said the agency's TIP goals followed legislation passed in 2003 that asked the agency to conduct a technology immersion pilot project.

The Texas Center for Educational Research (TCER), an independent nonprofit organization, is the TEA's primary evaluation partner. In addition to employing a scientific research design with random assignment of eligible middle schools to experimental and control groups, researchers test the efficacy of empirical methods used to assess the impact of technology intervention on student achievement.

"We are comparing what happens when you immerse middle-school students in technology with the laptops versus schools that employ their technology program as they normally would, where every student does not have the same level of access, and where every teacher does not have the same level of training," said Givens. "Early evaluation data from our project indicates that TIP students are more proficient with technology, more engaged in learning, use technology more in core curriculum classes and have fewer discipline problems than students on our control campuses."

Where the Action Is
The most visible indicators of TIP's effects are in the classroom, where every student uses a laptop. Fruitvale Middle School Principal Loyd Nations said that since the school was awarded the grant in 2003, test scores have risen.

He attributed this increase in part to the schoolwide use of laptop computers and their incorporation with everyday instruction.

"I feel it's had a positive impact on our test scores, where we have seen an improvement [since starting the program]. I think it enhances classroom instruction and doesn't interfere -- I can see a potential problem in relying on it too much."

The laptops all have wireless connections, giving students access to the Internet for research. "We have it filtered pretty heavily," said Nations.

Allowing students to research their assignments on the computer, and then create and write them in the same place certainly increases the chance of cutting and pasting information, and direct plagiarism, intentional or not.

"No copying and pasting is allowed," said Teri Hagood, a sixth-grade teacher at Fruitvale Middle School. "If you do, it's a zero. If you can't pronounce the word and don't know what it means, you copied it."

Most of the rooms also have LCD projectors, and student laptop presentations are a frequent instructional and evaluative method. Teacher planning and assignments are often computer-generated and e-mailed. Teachers conveniently maintain digital student portfolios, making their grades and corrected work easy to store and track.  

"Student presentations help teach the other kids, and students often want to know how other kids did something," said Surratt. "There is a lot of group work."

Sheri Rossetti, a technology consultant for education publisher Pearson Achievement Solutions, is under contract to provide technology training for Fruitvale Middle School teachers and students in support of the TIP program. She showed new teachers how to navigate the laptop and incorporate lessons, and she also works closely with students.

The teachers and students receive the laptop and software products that go along with it -- a search engine, an e-mail program and Dell Exchange.

"We go over the software with the teachers and kids, then move to what technology integration looks like," Rossetti said. "I am a certified teacher, so I can go in and model lessons for teachers."

The extent of technology immersion depends on the school and on teachers' willingness to learn, Rossetti said.

"Some teachers are very intimidated by the technology because the kids know more than they do. I have some teachers, the newer ones out of college, who design their instruction using technology. Those who have been teaching for a while, I show them the programs and model lessons, and say that it's OK to ask the students questions, too, if a teacher is unsure."

Rossetti's work is part of a contract with Dell, but TIP schools could choose between Dell or Apple computers. Pearson Achievement Solutions also works closely with the TEA, as far as the agency's expectations for the use of grant money.

In theory, students can sign out laptops and take them home, but this is not something Fruitvale students do, Rossetti said.

"Whether they have Internet at home is an issue -- there are plenty of parents who are struggling," she said, noting that throughout the state, students at other TIP schools take the laptops home and that adds to their learning. "It's a good project, and in the research coming out, we'll see an increase in student engagement and achievement."

Technology immersion has a definite benefit for student motivation at Fruitvale Middle School.

"It's really easy -- the kids love it. They get excited to do it on the laptops; they don't mind doing the work," said Hagood. "We teach right from the laptops -- I'll open it up and present it on the board with the LCD and talk it out. We do lots of research -- I teach history, English and reading -- and that is one of the main reasons we need it. Then they make presentations to the class with PowerPoint or Word."

As with any other instructional method, sometimes students get distracted, Hagood said. "You have to watch the whole class because it only takes a minute for them to get off task. It's been helpful, though, because at first they were a little leery of getting up there and experimenting, but as they got into the work, it seemed to push them, and now they are more apt to do it than they were before. When they see a laptop assignment on the board, they get excited about it and can't wait to hear about the lesson."

Debbie Sheppard teaches sixth-, seventh- and eighth-grade science at Fruitvale Middle School.

"We can visit Web sites that allow virtual and interactive dissection of the knee," she said. "We've taken pictures of different lab activities and integrated them into documents. They can e-mail their homework assignments to me -- [it] cuts down on the amount of paper."

TIP's Future in Fruitvale
In spring 2006, Fruitvale ISD received an additional $125,000 to continue the TIP program. This two-year extension brings Fruitvale Middle School a total of $489,000 in TIP grant money.

The grant helps support Fruitvale ISD's 2005-2006 goal to "more fully integrate technology into the instructional program." As part of the overall district improvement plan for 2006, the curriculum director, principals, teachers and counselors were given the task of incorporating computer software programs into the curriculum to emphasize state testing objectives. These programs will be accessible in all reading and math classrooms throughout the district. Fruitvale ISD measures its own progress every six weeks and builds on existing computer programs, with the goal of improving overall test scores.

The immediate effects of TIP at Fruitvale Middle School are evident, said Surratt.

"Our students just absolutely love it, and it's amazing what they are able to do," he said. "The normal routine of the classroom is completely changing because of the total immersion."

Sheppard is equally enthusiastic.

"It's awesome. What a privilege it is for me to be here, and what an opportunity these kids are having. I wouldn't teach anywhere else."