Changing the way kids learn: a presidential vision
March 8th, 2011
06:00 AM ET

Changing the way kids learn: a presidential vision

BOSTON, Massachusetts (CNN) - It’s like many schools in heavily urban areas: there are metal detectors, the neighborhood is poorer than many and 90 percent of the students qualify for free or subsidized lunches.

But there’s a real difference at TechBoston Academy in the Dorchester neighborhood of Boston, Massachusetts. At this school an average of 95 percent of the students are routinely accepted into college.

Headmaster Mary Skipper has overseen this pilot model public school since it was opened back in 2002 as a partnership between the public school system, private business and philanthropy.

“It’s a total team effort,” Skipper told CNN. “It starts with having quality teachers who are committed and hard-working.”

And those metal detectors – Skipper sees them as a symbol and a metaphor.  She “keep the street in the street and the school in the school,” she said.

The simple act of walking through the metal detectors each day, Skipper believes, helps students “forget all that outside stuff for that moment of time. When you’re in here, you’re here to succeed.”

And success has come to this small experimental school. Tuesday, President Obama along with Melinda Gates, co-chairman of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and Education Secretary Arne Duncan will tour TechBoston Academy. The president will showcase the school’s success story and discuss the shared responsibility of investing in education to win the future.

In a White House statement previewing the Boston visit the president said, "There is no better economic policy than one that produces more graduates. That’s why reforming education is the responsibility of every American – every parent, every teacher, every business leader, every public official, and every student.”

TechBoston Academy opened with just 75 students and a $400,000 grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, as well as support from other private and philanthropic organizations. Today, enrollment is more than 800 students in sixth through 12th grades. Its mission is to better educate kids using technology as an integral part of that education.

For example, every student enrolling at TechBoston receives his or her own laptop. Forget chalkboards, each classroom has its own SMART board, a high tech, interactive white board. Technology giants like Microsoft, Apple, Dell, HP, Lenovo and Cisco are benefactors.

But Skipper insists the success of the partnership is a result of much more than material donations. “It’s more than pulling up trucks and dropping things off,” she told CNN.

She says it is the continuing relationship the companies pursue with the school that makes the difference. For instance, SMART boards are excellent tools in the classroom but when companies work to develop teacher’s skills in learning new and different ways to use those boards, it makes the technology all the more enriching.

Another way the corporate partners help students is by opening job shadow opportunities to them. Eighty to 90 percent of TechBoston’s students are first generation college applicants. Skipper says putting her students in the workplace alongside engineers, scientists or technicians, many of whom come from similar impoverished backgrounds, is invaluable. “They go out and see what’s possible with a degree…what doors will open for me,” she said.

Tuesday, President Obama and Education Secretary Duncan will announce a new program with $90 million in competitive grants for educators who create dramatic breakthroughs using technology for teaching and learning.

Duncan said Monday in a conference call with reporters that this program is part of a larger plan to remake the Department of Education into a "department with a laser-like focus on innovation."

"Technology has transformed how folks do business,” said Duncan. ‘It's transformed how folks interact socially. It's led to literally, you know, huge, revolutionary changes in places like Egypt. But technology frankly hasn't had that kind of impact on the education space yet."

The Secretary added, "We want to invest in that next generation of tools that could help us get the much better student outcomes for ideally a fraction of the time and a fraction of the cost.”

At TechBoston Academy that vision has become reality. Skipper sees the cycle of failure breaking. Former students are now back at the school, this time as teaching aides, as they pursue their education degrees. The head master proudly confided that she asked them why they had chosen teaching, “They told me because education changed my life.”

With additional reporting from CNN's Sally Holland

Topics: Arne Duncan • Education • President Obama • The News

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