Rural school acquires cutting-edge technology

Mecca Glen School is going to be among the leading ranks of Alberta’s schools, blending academic environment and technology

Principal Al Libby

Principal Al Libby

Mecca Glen School is going to be among the leading ranks of Alberta’s schools, blending academic environment and technology in the classroom.

Mecca Glen is part of an extended Chromebook pilot program and is receiving 80 Chromebooks next fall. Chromebooks are smaller versions of laptops that can start up in seconds and are connected to Google Chrome.

Greg Esteves, technology integration director for Wolf Creek Public Schools (WCPS), says Wolf Creek was looking for proposals from schools that were in a “state of readiness” with the abilities and skills to use the technology effectively.

“Do you have a core set of skills with an ability to imagine learning in a different environment?” Esteves asked rhetorically.

Teachers at schools that are a part of the pilot project are required to attend a technology convention each fall. “It’s not just about the technology, it’s not just about the Chromebooks,” he added.

Mecca Glen principal Al Libby has determined approximate grade configurations for next year and believes he’ll have about 75 students from grades 4 to 9; which is why he asked for 80 Chromebooks.

With the older students given complete access to the Chromebooks for most of each school day — where all core subjects can be accessed and taught on — the schools two computer labs, which house 30 computers each, will open up to the younger grades.

Mecca Glen has one computer for every 2.5 students, says Libby, which is a better ratio than most schools have. “But we’re still fighting for the computer labs.”

Teachers at Mecca Glen will be given about one hour per week in one-on-one instructional time with the school’s technology coach, Richard Zandberg, to learn more about the Chromebooks and how their uses can be absorbed and advance learning in the classroom.

Libby teaches his Grade 3 math class solely from a computer lab and already has developed many uses for the technology the Chromebooks will make available, with positive results.

This year Libby had three students who greatly struggled in math and he had serious qualms on whether they’d be able to pass the Provincial Achievement Test (PAT). One passed with a mark in the mid-50s and another with a mark in the 60s.

Only one student failed the test. The student has serious medical and learning challenges and the day before the PAT was spent in the hospital.

This year, by using the engaging technology tools one-third of the Grade 3 math students hit the provincial standard of excellence.

In previous years, before the school wasn’t a part of the 21st Century Learning (U21C) initiative, no students from the Grade 3 level achieved a standard of excellence.

“Results like that aren’t an accident,” said Esteves.

Mecca Glen became a part of the U21C initiative almost two years ago, when the project started, which was before Libby was principal at the school.

The first year the Wolf Creek Public School (WCPS) board offered a $300,000 grant, which was split between the original schools of the project.

The second year, Mecca Glen received $150,000, which they had to match. Schools within the division had to team up, mentor each other and submit a proposal; Mecca Glen submitted theirs with Alix MAC.

“It isn’t easy, you can’t just say we’re going to turn Mecca Glen into a U21C school,” said Esteves.

When the school joined the initiative it appointed one of its teachers as the technology coach.

Zandberg now spends 20 per cent of his time working with the teachers to support them as they bring newer, technology-based learning strategies into their classrooms.

Libby joined Mecca Glen one year ago from Rocky Mountain House. “I was lost. I was basically a conventional teacher.”

However, Libby was able to choose his own tech goal and decided he wanted to build his own website for Mecca Glen, in conjunction with the WCPS site.

Libby wanted his website to be a place for students and parents to go and keep up with the school’s news (http://alibbymg.wordpress.com/). “I had no idea it was going to become a primary teaching tool, rather than a place to go and get up to date.”

On his front page Libby created menus leading to additional pages for the classes he taught.

Libby’s students no longer need to take their textbooks home because the whole book has been uploaded onto the website; practice sheets and class assignments are also there. “This is really where I started to expand as a teacher.”

On his site Libby added a forum area for comments and questions, to which he responds and posts. Parents who subscribe to the website will be notified whenever Libby posts, which he says is an easy way to keep parents informed of test dates so they can better help the students study.

In class, using the privately owned WCPS Google domain, groups of students — determined by their learning levels and capabilities — are able to work on the same document from different computers, and see each other’s work live as it appears on the page. Libby, using his own computer station can also watch the students work appear and make comments to them on the document.

This also allows students who’ve grasped the lesson to forge ahead and leaves Libby to focus on those needing additional instruction.

“That classroom environment, that’s becoming more and more expected from our students and parents,” said Esteves.

Libby is able to keep tabs on the student groups as their work appears and from his station he’s able to see who needs help by what they’re putting on the page. “I’m not just wandering around looking for students who are having trouble. It’s a much better use of teachers’ time.”

Since Mecca Glen entered U21C two years ago, Zandberg says he’s noticed the students are more engaged and excited by what they’re learning.

This is why Libby is particularly eager for the Chromebooks. He feels the last two years have been focused on teachers and the technology with only isolated pockets for student opportunity. “Now we’re going to be moving the technology into the hands of the students.”

“It’s to leverage it for learning, and that’s the really powerful part,” added Zandberg.

“People think this is a little county in the middle of a farming community with conventional classrooms,” said Libby.

Although students will now spend more time using technology classes Mecca Glen’s staff are prepared to balance the Chromebooks with more traditional methods for many reasons, including student safety.

“It’s a much smaller machine than a laptop,” said Libby, explaining that the technology won’t be used in excess to the point of straining students’ eyes.

As well as recesses students will continue with gym classes and 30 set minutes of physical activity a day. “A good teacher will know how to balance hands-on group work, it’s all about balance,” said Libby.