The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

Local News

July 5, 2014

High-tech tools move into Westmont classrooms

JOHNSTOWN — Westmont Hilltop School District is preparing its students for the future by tapping into the latest in technological teaching tools.

The school board recently approved issuing an iPad to each student from grades 9 through 12 when the next school term begins.

Those students also will be able to participate during the next school term in the Zulama program, a new curriculum that melds technology, creativity and critical-thinking skills.

The school board is using some of the money it saved by reducing administrative and noninstructional positions to pay for the iPads.

Donald B. Irwin Jr., who will become the superintendent in August while retaining his post as business manager, said educators will teach courses by means of iPads.

The initiative will provide immediate savings because the district will not have to buy textbooks, he said.

The iPads also will save money because fewer computer laboratories at the high school will be needed, Irwin said.

Because the district is planning to consolidate to two buildings from three, every computer lab not needed saves $250,000, he said.

There are now three labs at the high school where students can go if they need to work on a computer. If each high school student has an iPad, two of those rooms would not be needed,

thus potentially saving $500,000 over 20 years, he said.

“The board and administration acknowledge that this is the first step of a long journey for the faculty and students at the high school,” Irwin said.

“I have complete confidence in the high school teachers, who are excellent educators. They are up to the challenge of refining their skills to deliver their knowledge, expertise and content through a student-centered approach.”

Irwin said the school board approved the expenditure of up to $250,000 for the iPads, but that he was able to acquire them for just under $200,000.

The district had allowed students to bring their own iPads or rent a similar device called a Chromebook for $50, he said. The problem quickly became obvious that if a teacher had a class of 23 students and four did not have any device, the teacher had to teach to the lowest common denominator, which were the students without a device, he said.

Over time, students did not take their devices to school because they were not being used, he said.

High School Principal Tom Mitchell said administrators and teachers are excited to be able to partner with Apple, the manufacturer of the iPad.

“Apple provides excellent training, resources and support for teachers,” he said. “Students are naturally engaged by the iPad because of the functionality, power and ‘cool factor.’

“Students like the iPad and will be more engaged in the educational process because they like them.

“At the Westmont Hilltop School District, we have always prided ourselves on the level of student access to the latest technology. This initiative is just the next step in an  effort to better educate our students and prepare for the 21st century workforce.”

Steven D. McGee, the district’s director of education, said the Zulama program is a curriculum that was created by educators at Carnegie Mellon University’s Entertainment Technology Center.

“It gives high school students experience with problem-solving and thinking creatively in a game-based environment,” he said.

Zulama will teach them the skills they will need to land jobs in a digital world,” he said.

Students taking Zulama first have to complete a foundations class. All eighth-graders  will take the class  next year.

If parents believe that their child would be interested in Zulama, they should call the high school principal to schedule the foundations class.

The district’s cost to offer Zulama for the first year is $5,000.

Frank Sojak is a reporter for The Tribune-Democrat. Follow him on Twitter at @FrankNews10.


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