GCSD would like to teach tech at every level

— From GCSD program report

It is rocket science: Farnsworth Middle School students follow written directions as well as reading and understanding technical writing as they work to build a model rocket.

— From GCSD program report

Marble Mania: Eighth-graders at Farnsworth Middle School make drawings like this to build devices for moving marbles. “They take a marble from one machine they create with their partner to the next platform,” said Beverly Bisnett-Jenks, the middle-school supervisor of math, science, and technology.

— From GCSD program report

Working in pairs is typical for Farnsworth Middle school students using the Paxton Patterson multimedia system. Beverly Bisnett-Jenks, the middle-school supervisor of math, science, and technology, says she likes this picture because you can see the boy is thinking hard. School leaders believe the Paxton Patterson system is outdated and would like to upgrade.

GUILDERLAND — Although two of the board members who pushed hardest for the introduction of pre-engineering courses at the high school are now gone, the current board sounded eager to keep up the momentum.

At the December meeting, one board member pushed for web-design courses — “This is a skill you can take to the bank,” said Jennifer Charron — and another urged teaming up with the nearby Nanotech College and the regional Tech Valley High School, which is moving to Fuller Road.

The board president, Barbara Fraterrigo, urged introducing Project Lead The Way courses, now at the high school, at the middle school. She also said, “Other countries teach programming at the elementary level.”

“How about the challenges of keeping teachers up to speed?” asked board Vice President Gloria Towle-Hilt.

“It’s a challenge for sure; it’s a need, too,” said Demian Singleton, the district’s assistant superintendent for instruction.

He said about adding courses: “Timing is everything and resources are necessary.”

He noted, too, that the new Common Core Learning Standards, adopted by New York along with 44 other states, defines literacy not just as reading and writing. “Technology is in all the disciplines,” he said.

Singleton concluded the program report with a recommendation that Guilderland establish a continuum, starting with kindergartners and continuing through high school graduation, teaching fundamental skills such as keyboarding and cyber safety at the elementary level.

He also recommended that middle-school counselors work collaboratively with the high school to increase enrollment in technology courses there.

Finally, he recommended remaining current with trends in technology industries and adjusting the school programs accordingly.

“Of course, there are budget implications,” said Singleton. “We are continuously optimistic we can maintain our programs if not expand them.”

“Kids are just eating up the 3-D software,” said Beverly Bisnett-Jenks, the middle- school supervisor of math, science, and technology. “They’re ready to meet the challenge.”

The percentage of Guilderland High School students taking two or more Project Lead the Way courses has grown from 27 in 2008, after the program was introduced, to 43 percent last year.

That, Michael Piscitelli told the school board, “gave me the most optimism.” Piscitelli is the school’s math and science supervisor.

The not-for-profit Project Lead the Way, based in Indianapolis, uses a hands-on problem-solving approach to teach science, technology, engineering, and math — known as STEM courses. The forerunner was developed in another Suburban Council district, Shenendehowa, in the 1980s and has as its mission preparing American students for a global economy.

Piscitelli and Bisnett-Jenks, on Dec. 10, gave the board a detailed report on Guilderland’s technology education, one of a series of program reports.

State regulations require New York students to complete one unit of technology study by the end of eighth grade. High school students must take a course in technology education or an integrated course combining technology with math or science.

At Farnsworth

Farnsworth exceeds state standards with sixth-graders taking a 20-week course, and the program continues into seventh and eighth grade.

The goal of Guilderland’s technology program, board members were told, “is to strengthen students’ abilities to apply math and science concepts to engineering applications and to encourage students to pursue STEM careers.”

“We offer 15 different programs for students to choose from,” said Bisnett-Jenks; these range from digital music to robotics.

Farnsworth’s Paxton Patterson Action Labs have modules that incorporate multimedia, video, and hands-on activities. Teachers guide the students as they work through computer-based instruction.

“Students get a lot of opportunities to work with a partner,” said Bisnett-Jenks as she showed pictures of pairs of students at work — one dyad had a girl at a keyboard; another had two boys building a rocket.

All Farnsworth students participate in a design project, mapping out a long-range project and then building it. In the sixth grade, they build bucksaws and, said Bisnett-Jenks, “learn a lot about safety.” They also learn keyboarding and about cyber safety and media literacy as well as about the history and impact of technologies on society.

In the seventh grade, they build catapults, using computer-aided design. In the eighth grade, the Marble Mania project furthers their skills in three-dimensional drawing, said Bisnett-Jenks; they collaborate on their projects. She showed a picture of the students on the floor in a circle, their devices in front of them.

“They take a marble from one machine they create with their partner to the next platform,” she said.

Farnsworth started using the Paxton Patterson Labs in 2008 at an initial cost of about $183,000, with much of the costs being part of the school’s bond project. Each year since the cost for equipment and supplies has totaled between about $9,000 and $12,000.The computers are now due to be phased out and replaced, said Bisnett-Jenks.

In addition to updating the learning modules, Bisnett-Jenks also recommended continuing to revise the lessons to align with the state’s math, science and technology standards as well as Next Generation Science Standards for design and engineering.

She recommended, too, embedding instruction on Internet safety and cyberbullying in all grade levels.

And, finally, she urged that students be introduced to software such as Inventor to make a smoother transition to the Project Lead The Way courses at the high school.

High school

The high school program, said Piscitelli, is “a mixture of full-year classes and half-year electives.”

The school offers four full-year Project Lead The Way courses: The base course is Design and Drawing for Production, followed by Civil Engineering and Architecture, Principles of Engineering, and Digital Electronics. Students can earn college credit for these courses and the number who have been successful in doing so has been steadily increasing. Piscitelli credited the teachers for their success.

Specialty half-year electives are also offered in manufacturing, technical drawing, two levels of digital photography, and an introductory course in electricity.

Piscitelli showed a series of graphs, charting enrollment in different courses.  After a first spike in Design and Drawing for Production, the base course, which Piscitelli attributed to “enthusiasm” for something new, there was a drop-off, which has since climbed back to nearly the original starting point.

Piscitelli attributed the initial drop-off to “a little bit of fear because of the pre-engineering label.”

A student survey showed most “are very positive about their experiences,” said Piscitelli. Seventy-one percent said the program had “sparked an interest in a career in engineering,” he said.

A survey of teachers and guidance counselors at the high school showed they believed that Project Lead The Way has improved the technology program and that it can be expanded.

Other business

In other business, the board:

— Heard from Singleton that, on Dec. 13, teams from each school received a full day of training on complying with the state’s Dignity for All Students Act. Dr. Kathleen Allen from the Alberta Center for Bullying Abuse Prevention at the University at Buffalo provided training;

— Learned that, as part of the Board of Regents reform, the State Education Department is requiring progress updates for all students in kindergarten through 12th grade. Few changes are needed in the high school and middle school report cards, said Singleton, but those at the elementary level have not been updated for over a decade and need to be revised “to better reflect the changes in standards and programs in recent years.”

“The new reporting tool” will be used for the first time this year, he said, and the district will seek “feedback for possible revisions” in the future. Parents can learn more at the district website, www.guilderlandschools.org;

— Heard from Superintendent Marie Wiles that, on Jan. 30, the Legislative Committee of the Superintendents from two local Boards of Cooperative Educational Services, representing 43 districts, will host an event, at South Colonie High School, to tell elected officials to reduce or eliminate the Gap Elimination Adjustment. The GEA was introduced in 2010-11 to help close the state’s $10 billion budget gap and the money is now deducted annually from the state aid calculated for each school district;

— Learned from Wiles that Guilderland will be reviewing its administrative structure, working with John Yageielski, a retired school superintendent, to provide options for modification. “We are ever cognizant of the need to review our leadership structure,’ said Wiles,

At the same time, Guilderland is evaluating its facilities as enrollment declines. Wiles said the capacity study and leadership review “will meet at some point.” Recommendations will not be made and adopted in time for next year’s budget, she said;

— Reviewed a policy on retention, stressing early identification of and intervention for problems. Elementary students who do not make satisfactory progress in one or more basic subjects shall have their cases considered individually and may “as a last resort be retained.”

Middle school students who fail just one subject may be required to repeat the subject but will typically be promoted with either summer school or assignment to a lower ability group.

In high school, promotion from one grade to the next requires passing all required subjects;

— Reviewed regulations on acceptable use of computers and the Internet with such stipulations as purchases can’t be made through school computers and students will be supervised when they access the Internet;

— Approved an agreement with CSArch to provide architectural and engineering services for a $17.3 million project to update Guilderland’s seven school buildings and improve security and technology passed by voters on Oct. 14. The board also approved authorizing the issuance of serial bonds for the project.

Assistant Superintendent for Business Neil Sanders said that requests for proposals had been put out for a construction manager, with responses due by Dec. 18, so the board could vote on a recommended appointment on Jan. 21. “It should be a separate oversight,” said Sanders, rather than hiring a manager from CSArch;

— Approved an agreement with TRAC Services for physical therapy services for the 2013-14 school year. Sanders said the company “did a nice job last year” with no complaints and held the price for this year so no requests for proposals were put out. The reimbursement rate is $49.60 per hour, with a total reimbursement for the 2013-14 school year of $22,230.44;

— Approved an agreement with Albany County to have the high school serve as a “primary point of dispensing site” in case mass immunization were needed for a large-scale public health emergency.

“We would get reimbursed for the basic expenses,” said Sanders;

— Awarded a bid for copy paper to W. B. Mason Company Inc. for $57,002.40, the lower of the two qualified bidders that responded to six solicitations. This will pay for 2,520 cases of paper. “We’re saving about half the cost,” said Sanders, compared to buying from local stores. “We don’t have to do any of the handling.” He also noted that the district has decreased its use of paper from four tractor-trailer loads to three;

— Accepted the donation of a digital grand piano from Sabrino Bruno; and

— Voted, 6 to 2, to elect Matthew Wade, over Gary DiLallo, as Area 7 director of the New York State School Boards Association for a two-year term, starting on Jan. 1.

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