Merced County, Calif., Schools Try Transforming Education with Tech

The county has made a push in recent years to put a laptop in the hands of every child and do away with the traditional textbooks.

by Thaddeus Miller, Merced Sun-Star / February 19, 2015

(TNS) -- Merced County schools touted their use of technology on Wednesday to try to “transform” education during the fourth annual state of education report from Superintendent Steve Gomes.

He addressed more than 300 business people, educational leaders, elected officials, law enforcement officers and residents at Merced’s Yosemite Church during a luncheon. The presentation will be the same for the county’s Westside on Friday in Los Banos.

The county has made a push in recent years to put a laptop in the hands of every child, doing away with the traditional textbooks. “Education has to change, because our economy has changed,” Gomes said.

As an example to follow, he pointed to parts of the state where companies are driving local economies by developing new technology, ideas and knowledge. Those companies have often relocated – to somewhere like the Silicon Valley, for example – because that’s where the trained engineers and investors are.

That could be a hard sell in the San Joaquin Valley, where agriculture and manufacturing has driven the economy and thus education for many years.

Gomes said having a workforce educated in math and sciences, like in Silicon Valley, could be repeated here in the shadow of UC Merced, a research institution. “If we all continue to say Merced will never achieve that, that’s going to be a self-fulfilling prophecy,” he said.

The presentation also covered the benefits of getting people to complete a bachelor’s degree. In Merced County, 8.4 percent of the population has a bachelor’s degree, and about 21 percent of residents live at or below the poverty line.

Merced County has a 90 percent graduation rate at its high school campuses, and 44 percent enroll in college.

Other counties with higher rates of bachelor’s degrees – like Stanislaus, Santa Cruz and Riverside – have a correlation of a smaller rate of families living in poverty. The median incomes in those counties are also higher.

The district presented the report in a multimedia format, including a video about how it has worked to implement technology in small and large districts alike.

Bryan Ballenger, superintendent of Ballico-Cressey School District, said putting a laptop in the hands of everyone of his district’s 347 students is a “game changer.” The students are also given more access to teachers through email.

“When they leave our school, the learning doesn’t stop. It doesn’t slow down,” he said. “They’re able to access information anywhere.”

The children in the district live in a small, rural town, so the technology is extra important to give them a chance to explore outside their area, he said.

On the other end of the spectrum is the Merced Union High School District, which has about 9,900 students.

One school in the district, El Capitan High, issued laptops to each of its students when it opened a few years ago. Principal Anthony Johnson said laptops have put large amounts of information at the fingertips of students. “(It) gives them access to information and skills that weren’t necessarily available in textbooks,” he said.

The next step is getting them to think critically and know where to get information, he said.

The presentation will be repeated from 11:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. Friday at the Los Banos Community Center, 645 Seventh St., Los Banos.

©2015 the Merced Sun-Star (Merced, Calif.)

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