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Cue the Dream Sequence- A Visit to McKinley Tech

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January 06, 2012 05:34 pm

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Alliance President Bob Wise and I had the chance to visit a fascinating high school right here in our own backyard in Washington, DC: McKinley Technology High School. Now schools in the District of Columbia have, of course, experienced many challenges over the decades, but the stunning architecture, amazing views, and impressive brick construction of the school made a great first impression. While appearances matter in schools, they aren’t everything, so I was eager to see what was going on within the walls.

McKinley is a science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM)-focused school that is already making some great uses of digital learning strategies. We had a great discussion with the principal and some staff about policies affecting digital learning and what we’re seeing elsewhere in the country. Everyone agreed on the great potential digital learning has to improve student learning.

Then, it was time to cue the dream sequence. Because that’s what our tour of the school felt like. You know, when the screen gets fuzzy and suddenly everything looks perfect? Birds are singing, the sun is shining? Well, that’s almost how our visit went! Only instead of birds singing, it was students popping out of classrooms, with comments such as “Hey, Mr. S! I’ll get that report on relative physics to you over our learning platform software to you right away!”

A lab at McKinley TechThe neoclassic architecture of the building played a remarkable foil to the students bustling in the classrooms, wearing either lab coats (we visited a biotechnology class) or military uniforms (the JROTC program was undergoing a review that day.) Over and over again, I saw classrooms where students were engaged – completely – in what they were doing. The halls were silent; the classrooms were buzzing – quietly – but buzzing actively with students writing Flash code or working on lab experiments.

In the biotechnology class, the teacher explained how he has students do their lab experiments virtually before he lets them loose in the actual lab where they were doing something I only barely understood with DNA, reagents, and gels. This conserves valuable resources and ensures the students get the most learning out of their actual lab time.

Over in another classroom, students were writing Flash code to make animated images. We watched as student after student got the moon to rise on their screen. Again, every student was engaged, focused, and experiencing tangible results of their learning. It was impressive—especially because, McKinley, like most schools in DC, serves a population that has been dramatically underserved for generations.

Seventy percent of McKinley’s students are low-income; 95 percent are African-American. But most, said Director of Partnerships Gideon Sanders, have a mobile device, smartphone, or other computer that allows them to access the internet. Additionally, the school utilizes learning platforms and technologies that allow the students to get homework, lessons, and assignments anywhere, anytime. In fact, during the blizzards in 2009, school was closed for twelve days, but Sanders’ class was able to keep up via their learning platform.

The dream sequence finally came to a close as we exited the building and came across the JROTC review. “Well?” said Sanders eagerly. “Did we make the cut?”

“Absolutely,” said the reviewer, giving a big thumbs up. “I’ll be giving you my highest rating. These are some of the best kids I’ve seen.”

Congratulations were offered. It was a celebratory moment. And schools like McKinley, who are making tremendous efforts to ensure their students graduate ready for college and career (McKinley’s graduation rate is 100 percent and 94 percent go on to college) need to be celebrated, encouraged, and supported. We look forward to seeing how McKinley Tech can participate in Digital Learning Day and I know they are looking forward to learning from other schools on how they can continue to improve.

Any school who wants to learn more should sign up for Digital Learning Day for exclusive content, access to great resources, and participation in our national blended town hall meeting. Join us by starting a conversation, trying something new, or showcasing success.

Terri Duggan Schwartzbeck is a senior policy associate at the Alliance for Excellent Education.

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