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Technology sparkles in New Canaan schools

Published 11:55 am, Wednesday, February 6, 2013

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  • One of several New Canaan High School classrooms lined with rows of computers. Feb. 1, 2013, New Canaan, Conn. Photo: Tyler Woods
    One of several New Canaan High School classrooms lined with rows of computers. Feb. 1, 2013, New Canaan, Conn. Photo: Tyler Woods

 

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Classrooms lined with computers, filmmaking classes, digital learning assessments, a news production studio: Walking through some of the classrooms of New Canaan High School during a technology showcase tour, visitors might wonder if they were in a high school or an Ivy League computer lab.

"We want our students to be in a learning environment that transcends physical space, in any location, and which transcends time," is how Director of Technology Rob Miller described the efforts of New Canaan Public Schools on Friday, Feb. 1.

Miller described the district's foray into thin clients, which use a centralized server that can be accessed from any device, as an upgrade over individual computers, and certainly over paper notebooks.

"Google Apps is something we start with in second grade," Miller continued, speaking of the elementary schools, which have seen a rapid influx of iPads as instructional tools. "At lower levels, students can have e-books read to them and animated."

Miller also touted what he called "adaptive learning," where teachers are able to digitally input students' data and diagnose and analyze their performance on a highly detailed level.

But the most impressive aspect of the morning was the tour around the facilities.

Teacher Anna Mase's music production class sat gathered on chairs and couches in a semicircle around a massive screen. She alternated between an armchair and the floor, depending on how excited she became about a given topic. She explained to the students the mechanics of the program, GarageBand, she had open on the board.

"Each one of these green bars is a different track. Now he repeats it again," she said, following along to a movie soundtrack-style song a former student produced with the program. "Look! Here come the strings!" she exclaimed, a new green bar approaching the beginning of the screen. Sure enough, seconds later, a burst of dramatic strings entered the piece.

Such a demonstration of the use of technology impressed many of those on the tour.

"From a Town Council perspective, hearing about tech is one thing, but to see it in action is a whole different ball of wax," said Town Council member and Education Subcommittee Chairman Tucker Murphy, who attended the tour. "When we saw kids working with these programs and their ability, it was almost second nature to them. There is so much that goes on in each individual classroom because of all technology available."

In the Filmmaking II class, students sat in rows in front of huge screens with music playing quietly. Cathy Swan, the high school technology integration teacher, asked one of the students to explain the class. One student, Mike, volunteered.

"I really like this class because not only does it give me the chance to film, but I can write and get my friends together and film it. I think this is probably my favorite elective I've had," he said.

Swan asked him if he felt like the next Stephen Spielberg.

Mike was unable to say anything to that, taking the question seriously enough only to smile and visibly contemplate a response that wouldn't come.

The technology, of course, isn't free.

Including both the operating and capital budget, the technology department of the district has requested more than $3.06 million for 2013-14, which includes salaries, hardware leases, software and infrastructure, according to the Board of Education's proposed budget. The tech department's operating expenses, at $2.37 million are proposed to be up 14.1 percent over 2012-13, and nearly double what they were in 2009-10, when they were $1.28 million.

These increases contribute to a proposed district operating budget that's 5.7 percent higher in 2013-14 than that of 2012-13.

"You've got to come back to reality here and say this is not some big bottomless checkbook," Town Councilman Roger Williams said in an interview, regarding the school's overall budget. Williams said the increase is too high and that serious cuts would have to be considered.

Such discussion is inevitably part of the balance of spending. On the technology walk-through, the dollars previously spent were tangible. Perhaps the most striking display was the morning announcements, filmed live in a real studio by the students and broadcast into each classroom. Two students, dressed in full television news attire, sat in the studio reading the news from a teleprompter. In the studio behind the camera, three more students sat behind a wall of monitors and equipment, turning dials and making adjustments as a teacher calmly but precisely instructed them.

"Roll playback ... . Source three ... . Graphic up ..."

"Good morning students!" the student anchor began, before getting into announcements, a few jokes and a recap of the Rams' recent loss in wrestling.

twoods@bcnnew.com; 203-972-4413; @Woods_NCNews