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Computer revolution gets high marks in district

| Sunday, Sept. 25, 2005

And the revolution continues -- better now than ever, school officials say.

When computers were introduced into the Greater Latrobe School District, administrators established a far-reaching agenda: A computer for every student, starting in the seventh grade.

While other districts were opting for computer labs, or a half-dozen computers per classroom, Latrobe took a different route -- computers would be the rule rather than the exception.

The watchword was total immersion, the complete integration of computers into the classroom.

More than six years since the experiment was first contemplated and tested, computer technology has reached the point that online courses are now available at the high school.

"I think it's beyond the vision of where we thought we would be," said Robin Pynos, head of the school district's technology department.

Teachers say the impact of computers on learning has been practically off the charts. Most students were upbeat.

For juniors and seniors, computer use in the classroom appears to be as routine as Friday-night football.

Senior Gina Dominick said she sometimes feels she hasn't worked hard enough when, after a short Google search, she comes up with just the right citation for an English paper or just the right quote for a history essay.

Kyle Churman, a senior, said his normal routine is to do both book research and research on the Internet.

"Research is easier and faster with the Internet, but you don't always get the best results," Churman said.

Initial limitations

The first computers, introduced in the junior high school, were proprietary models manufactured for NetSchools, the for-profit company that helped to sell Latrobe school officials on so-called date-driven education.

These initial laptops, purchased by the school district, connected the school to the Internet by means of an infrared system installed in the school's ceilings. Dominick, Churman and several other students recalled the infrared system's inconsistency and cold spots. It amuses them now that they sometimes had to "huddle together" as a group to receive an infrared signal strong enough to power their individual computers.

School officials discovered other limitations. Upgrades and refinements proved especially difficult, said Pynos and Jamie Piraino, the assistant high school principal who is deeply involved in the new technology.

The seven-year cycle for the computers was wholly inadequate, Pynos said, noting the computers "didn't have that kind of life."

In the end, durability and adaptability were the key factors in retiring the NetSchools computers to the school dustbin.

School officials opted for sturdier, more sophisticated computers.

"Computers have transformed the way we learn," Piraino said, contrasting the old and slow way of doing school research -- at the library, with books -- with the speed of the Internet.

One of the chief concerns of school officials is to prevent theft or damage to the computers. A $25 fee covers $5,000 in repairs, said Piraino, who urged that students, or more likely their parents, take advantage of such a good deal. At the same time, Piraino cautioned the students that while accidents were covered, damage that resulted from horseplay was not.

Online classroom

Junior Valerie Maffia was seated in teacher Anne Bleehash's online health classroom.

"I thought it would be easier," Maffia said of why she signed up for the online class.

Assignments are handled electronically, and an electronic chat room is available for exchanges on health-related topics between the students and the teacher and among the students themselves.

One of the compelling features of the class is the timeframe in which the students and Bleehash operate: The assignment for module one -- a combination of three textbook chapters -- was due by 11 that night.

Maffia liked her first online class, saying she's been able to work on health topics during the day with the option of working at night at home.

Gina Dominick said that she had envied the students taking the online class. "It's really nice to work at your own pace," she said.

Maria DeFabo, another senior, echoed this sentiment, noting the "independence" the computer affords students.

Pynos said computer-aided learning encourages and rewards "self-motivation" on the part of students.

A veteran teacher, Bleehash said she would teach "forever" now that computer-aided learning was a reality.

Diane Penzera, a high school English teacher, presides over a class in European literature and history that has dispensed with books in the traditional sense. Students access books electronically.

Computers do equally well with math and science subjects, teachers and students said.

Senior high math teacher Lorraine Bryner said she employs an electronic sketchpad in her geometry classes. The sketchpad, she said, brings the real-world applications of geometry to life as no lecture or textbook can.

Computers also play a critical role in breaking down the complexities of calculus and physics, Dominick and other students said.

"We have seen a significant increase in the number of students proficient in reading, math and writing" since the introduction of computers into the classroom, Pynos said.

Math proficiency scores went up 12 percent last year while reading skills jumped 5 percent, Pynos said.

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