Montgomery schools plan to buy 2,000 interactive whiteboards, upgrade wireless


Second grade student Max Hamel, left, uses a selector under the instructions of his teacher, Kim Vigliotta, at an electronic whiteboard in their classroom at Great Seneca Creek Elementary School in Germantown Md. on September 13, 2012. (John McDonnell/THE WASHINGTON POST)
September 16, 2012

Second-graders Micah Chin and James Wagner took turns dragging and tapping blocks representing numbers across a computer screen the size of a blackboard at Great Seneca Creek Elementary School.

Micah couldn’t say whether he liked learning about place values on the interactive screen better than on a chalkboard because, he said, he doesn’t know what a chalkboard is.

James explained that it’s a wall you can draw on, but added, “I’ve never had it in a classroom.”

The 7-year-olds in Germantown are part of a generation of students who could graduate from high school without ever using a traditional chalkboard. Instead, netbooks, digital tablets and interactive whiteboards will drive their learning.

Every Montgomery County elementary school classroom could have digital whiteboards and every campus could have wireless Internet access by this time next year, according to a school system plan for increasing educational technology.

The Montgomery County Board of Education on Tuesday approved plans for $14.5 million in technology upgrades across the district, including interactive whiteboards for 2,000 elementary classrooms that don’t have them. The plan doesn’t include secondary schools, which received funding in 2008-09 to outfit 65 percent of secondary classrooms with interactive whiteboards.

The plan also will equip 101 elementary schools and 14 high schools with wireless technology. All middle schools and 11 of 25 county high schools already have wireless networks. The plan will now go before the County Council.

Interactive whiteboards and wireless Internet have changed classroom routines. Instead of saying “here” or “present” as a teacher reads names during morning roll call, students check in online using the boards. Students wired to headphones cluster around laptops as they play educational math games. And, along with checking out books from the library, they’re checking out netbooks.

Montgomery elementary schools that don’t have interactive whiteboards are clamoring for the technology. Several PTAs have sponsored fundraisers to pay for the boards, while others haven’t, creating a perception of inequality.

“We need to make sure we have a level playing field for all of our kids,” said Patricia O’Neill, a school board member. “The boards can’t just be for kids in schools that have affluent PTAs.”

Officials say the technology improvements will also help schools meet “Common Core State Curriculum Standards” for English, language arts and mathematics that Maryland adopted in June 2010. The curriculum, which is expected to be fully implemented by 2013-14, includes online courses for students, multimedia and other elements that will require an investment in tech infrastructure. It will also help schools meet new county curriculum guidelines for elementary schools called Curriculum 2.0.

The percentage of schools equipped with interactive whiteboards and wireless varies for each district in the Washington area. In Loudoun County, every classroom has an interactive whiteboard and every campus has wireless. All Fairfax County Public Schools have wireless, but not all have interactive whiteboards, and there are no specific district plans to put them in every classroom.

At Great Seneca Creek, PTA President Sandy Holloway said parents focused fundraising efforts on outfitting all of its 33 classrooms with interactive whiteboards when the county couldn’t pay for them.

This year, the PTA will give $12,000 to Great Seneca Creek to pay for four whiteboards, which will supplement those already in 21 classrooms.

“If you look at all of the research, children today are not the same as when I grew up,” Holloway said. “They’re more technologically savvy, and that’s what interests them. If we as educators can get something interesting for the kids to learn and have fun, that is the important part.”

But not all parents are convinced that the district’s plan to buy 2,000 interactive whiteboards is a great idea. Rachel Tickner, a parent in the district, wrote a letter to the Board of Education objecting to the spending at a time when hours for school personnel have been reduced.

“It is important that our children view technology as a resource for life and work, but it is more important that each child’s education is supported by daily, one-on-one interactions with caring, knowledgeable adults,” Tickner wrote.

The district plans to pay for the next wave of whiteboards and wireless mainly through its capital improvement budget, which can’t be used for personnel, and a rebate program the Federal Communications Commission created more than 15 years ago aimed at boosting technology in schools.

Superintendent Joshua P. Starr said that many of the Montgomery teachers who don’t yet have the technology anxiously ask when it will be their turn. With all classrooms on an equal tech footing, educators will be able to focus on “what should the teaching and learning environment” look like, Starr said.

Nationally, there is debate over whether the whiteboards in classrooms boost student achievement. Education experts disagree over whether the whiteboards are effective if teachers aren’t properly trained to use the technology or if schools don’t have enough money for upgrades and repairs. Last year, Loudoun parents disagreed over whether the School Board was wise to spend more than $4 million of a budget surplus on a mass purchase of interactive whiteboards.

Great Seneca Creek Principal Scott Curry said students in classrooms without the interactive whiteboards aren’t getting any less of an education. But the technology is another tool that helps increase their interest in learning.

“It’s not the teacher standing and delivering anymore,” Curry said. “Kids are engaged in their own learning, they’re talking to each other, and they’re thinking silently about what they want to say to each other.”

Lynh Bui is a Prince George's County public safety reporter and former Montgomery County education reporter.
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