Netbook evaluation at Plymouth board meeting scores a positive

by Dave Cary

PLYMOUTH – Begun a little over a year ago, the use of “netbook” computers by students both in class and at home has yielded encouraging results, Curriculum Director Carrie Dassow, high school Principal Dan Mella and Computer Director Mike Briggs told the School Board Tuesday.

Dassow said a survey had been taken and cautioned against attributing more than was warranted to the netbooks’ use. So many variables affect student performance, she said, that you can’t be very specific without isolating them all one by one, a laborious and time-consuming task. Still, she added, the main body of educational research indicates that the more students feel engaged by a subject, the better they do at it and that the netbooks have definitely increased this engagement.

What could be called the heart of the netbook program – at least at this stage – is the use by teachers of “Wikis” in their course work. Dassow said a Wiki is a program that contains course content, yet provides a way for students to interact with it, do projects, etc. at any time, not just school hours. A program goal is that through this setup the student becomes a sort of pursuer of the information and the teacher more of a guide or facilitator than an authoritarian. Some 89 percent of PHS teachers were using Wikis, she said, and teachers like the program.

To introduce the program a year ago, Mella said, sessions had been offered to parents. A major parental concern voiced was that kids would not take care of the netbooks, leaving parents on the hook for repair costs.

The experience has been however, he said, that the kids value their connection to the Internet and take good care of them; problems have been few. It is obvious, he said, that the students feel more engaged and besides, “they’re cool.”

Briggs said each netbook could only be used after the student’s password was entered, making the netbooks unusable by anyone else. Each has a software program built in that wipes off everything that has been added during the day, which, he said, includes any viruses picked up; students store work they want to keep on a jump drive.

At end of year, he said, each computer was wiped clean and what amounted to a new one issued.

As to computer care, he said, the netbooks had eliminated two computer labs in the school. This, he said, reduced repair costs substantially since without the personal connection of a netbook, students do not treat school computers kindly.

Dr. Clark Reinke, district administrator, Plymouth School District, said that this aspect of education was still in its infancy, and despite this he felt that with the level of student engagement already seen, they were on the verge of a major leap in the ability to teach.

German/Spanish teacher Sandy Nicholson told the board that the German Exchange program has been going quite well.

In the fall of 2010, seventeen German students visited Plymouth for a total of three weeks, attending classes, giving talks and interacting with PHS students. Nicholson said it had been a “great time” for them right from the start – the German students were especially impressed by the yellow school bus that met them at the airport.

Later, some 14 PHS students visited the “partner school” in Germany, and toured for a week, as well. Nicholson said it was interesting to see the students relax as they absorbed what they could of the local culture.

This year will be a little different, she said, as 13 faculty members from Germany will visit starting Oct. 7. Besides looking at U.S. schools and teaching methods, they will also visit Chicago and Madison.

In other matters, the board voted to raise the price of a carton of milk by a nickel. This is being done to partially offset the foodservice program’s deficit. The district buys milk through a purchasing consortium and the price was negotiated through this consortium.

The board approved a 50 percent limited-term contract for Mary Kreple to teach special education part time at Parkview. Kreple retired in June from the Plymouth schools after teaching here 20 years.

Talk about déjà vu … at last year’s annual meeting, district voters approved a levy of $11,545,393.

At Tuesday’s 2011 annual meeting, which preceded the regular School Board meeting, district voters approved an almost-identical levy of $11,517,203.

This drop of $28,190 will help produce a minuscule drop in the mill rate of 4 cents per thousand of assessed valuation – $4 on a $100,000 home.

This reduction might seem trivial, yet the year between the two levies was anything but, with all the events in Madison surrounding the state budget saga and school aid.

In his address to the voters, Reinke stressed how the district has been expanding the educational opportunities it offers, always keeping educational quality as its overriding goal.

Board President Mark Rhyan echoed this and added that he felt the politicians on both sides of the aisle – state and national – had lost entirely the spirit of collaboration, cooperation and compromise he felt was essential to living. Differences of opinion, he said, can produce many beneficial things if that spirit is followed and differences are aired. He said he felt that spirit should be modeled everywhere and said it had produced noteworthy results in the district in the last year.

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