An infusion of money has helped the Harris County School District improve its technology.
Last year, the district used approximately $650,000 from its Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax to create what officials call 21st Century classrooms. Catherin Hehman's second-grade class in Park Elementary School is a prime example.
During a visit from Georgia School Superintendent John Barge this week, Hehman and her 17 students showed how they use their Classmate Convertible 2600 computers, which are $600 laptops that convert into tablets.
"Pull your computer close to you, please," Hehman instructed her students. "We're going to be using a program called Note Taker. We're going to turn our computers into tablets, very carefully taking the top and turning it around and putting it down. Now, we have Note Taker."
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The Note Taker application allows the students to write on the computer screen with a stylus as if they had a pencil and paper. Note Taker also can convert what they wrote into a Word document and what they drew into a PDF, and Hehman can publish their work on her class Web page.
"So it's a very useful tool for children," she said, "because we all have a hard time when we first start typing and trying to get what we think in our heads down on paper. So this tool is useful to them because they can write whole things.
"They stay engaged using technology and then, when it converts it to a text, they can go back and fix the words, because it will show them if they've misspelled a word. They can fix it, but they don't have to type for an hour, so it's one of the really cool options that we've been using in our classroom."
Hehman continued instructing her students:
"Take out your stylus. Remember what your stylus is? Looks like a pen but doesn't mark on anything but our computers. When you've got it, say, 'I've got it.'"
And the students hollered, "I've got it!"
"Remember: We are working on decoding, and we're working on what kind of vowels? Short vowels, right? So let's start with the first word. Let's try 'cap,' like something you put on your head, a baseball cap. Can you draw me a picture and right the word 'cap?'
Hehman sounds out the word with her students.
"What letters make the 'kuh' sound at the beginning?"
"Is there another one?"
"So which one are you supposed to use?"
"What's the next letter you have?"
And what's the last letter?
"If you have the letter P at the end, put both your hands in the air and give yourself a 10-finger whoo."
"You spelled it correctly! If you messed up, it's still cool, but you need to know how to erase. Remember those pictures show you. So look at the top and you'll see something that looks like an orange-and-white eraser."
The SPLOST enabled the district to buy the following computers, which classrooms share by checking them out through their school's media center:
At least 10 Classmates for each of the four elementary schools (K-4).
One class set of Classmates for Creekside School (grades 5-6).
Two class sets of iPads and one set of Lenovo laptops for the middle school (grades 7-8).
One class set of Lenovo laptops, plus a set of iPads for two specific classrooms.
One computer projector and screen for each classroom in the district.
Deborah Korytoski, the district's assistant superintendent for curriculum, explained the high-tech impact.
"The beauty of what the SPLOST funds did for our technology is it's not just an interactive board where a teacher is standing in front of a projector and teaching; it's the whole interactive piece," she said. "The students are actively engaged with it. They're using responders and document cameras and tablets and mobile iPad labs at the media centers that teachers check out. It's wonderful."
Craig Dowling, the district's superintendent, noted the elementary schools use the Classmates instead of the iPads for a practical reason.
"Our teachers did the research and found out that these devices are better for the younger kids," he said. "It has the keyboard, and it is much more durable. Supposedly, they are almost indestructible. You drop an iPad and, if it hits on the corner, you've got a broken iPad."
The district asked teachers to compete for grants to receive the funds for the technology.
"We have limited dollars," Dowling said. "So if you want to have a 21st Century classroom, you tell us how you would use the money."
Hehman told them -- and now she has shown them.