By the late 1980s, the Union City school district was on the verge of being taken over by the state. This densely populated, poor, urban school district with 60,000 residents packed within one square mile had difficulty meeting New Jersey State education goals. Student attendance and scores on standardized tests were below state averages, while dropout and transfer rates were far above the state norm.
All that began to change in the 1989-90 school year. A new district superintendent and a new executive director for academic programs were appointed, and, because of the district's poor academic track record, the state required Union City to develop a five-year restructuring plan.
At the same time district reforms were taking place, the school district extended feelers to business and industry in New Jersey, hoping to convince those communities to invest resources in the schools. Bell Atlantic -- looking to test a communications system in an inner city, minority school district with a dense population -- spotted the district's call for investment and decided that Union City was a match. The school district was renovating an old parochial school -- Christopher Columbus -- it had recently purchased to house seventh and eighth graders from two elementary schools that were overcrowded. In 1992, Bell Atlantic approached the school district and offered to implement a technology trial. It was an offer the district could not refuse.
In the summer of 1993, Bell Atlantic installed in the school and homes of all seventh grade students and their teachers 486-level computers equipped with graphics and voice capabilities. Users can communicate between school and home and have basic software tools to carry out curriculum activities. Students and teachers are encouraged to keep the computers over the summer; and the computers supplied by Bell Atlantic now supplement the ones already purchased by the school district. In addition to each classroom having several computers, there are computers in the media resource room, the science laboratory, and the computer laboratory -- all areas to which students have access -- and the teacher's room, too.
The results of these reforms have been impressive. On New Jersey's Early Warning Test, test scores for Christopher Columbus students in reading, math and writing are now more than 10 points above the statewide average across the board, and the seventh grade students with the most exposure to technology had the highest overall scores for the district. Results from 1995 are equally promising: these students are continuing to outperform their peers in other district schools. Christopher Columbus also holds the district's best attendance record for both students and faculty. The transfer rate has dropped significantly at Christopher Columbus. Parents who could not speak English just 2 years ago are now actively involved with their children's use of the computers at home and frequently send messages to teachers and the school principal. Students are using the media resource room during lunch time and after school. They're actually eager to hand in their homework, neatly typed on the computer. And they're lining up before the formal school day begins so that they can get into the building eager to continue their learning activities.
Administrators and teachers now see the technology as an integral part of the curriculum, as it fits in well with their emphasis on research, critical thinking, and cooperative learning. For example, when students study the American Revolution, the teacher can divide the class into research teams. One or two teams conduct their research through traditional information, such as textbooks; another team goes to the media center and researches the topic on the multimedia encyclopedia; a third team uses the computer to research the topic through a CD ROM information disc; and a fourth group uses e-mail to access other forums or groups that may have information on the Revolution. In their communications class, students can choose a novel to read and research novels written about bravery and the Revolution. In math, they can make pie and bar graphs to compare, say, British and American resources available during the Revolution. Teams that do not complete their work during class time can continue working at home and communicate with one another through e-mail. Student teams then write group reports on the computer, which they present to the class to establish class knowledge.
One sometimes hears that teachers fear technology, but not at Christopher Columbus Junior High School. Teachers at the new school had volunteered for the assignment. Their enthusiasm was supported by training they received from Bell Atlantic and from the Education Development Center's Center for Children and Technology. Before the school year began, teachers learned computer basics and how to plug in multimedia applications to the new Union City seventh and eighth grade curriculums. Training continued through the school year, so that teachers learned how to use spreadsheets and database applications, e-mail, Lotus Notes, and Internet. The Center for Children and Technology also worked with teachers interested in discussing various technical and curricular issues that arose out of their work with Project Explore. Teachers held two workshops to introduce parents to the new technology; and Bell Atlantic staff have set up parent accounts on the network. The project has the support of the principal, who provided strong leadership and gave parents, students, and teachers an active voice in the decision-making process.