Microsoft Centers of Innovation: Across U.S., Schools Create Connected Learning Communities That Deliver Educational Excellence

REDMOND, Wash., April 19, 2004 — Five years ago, Ocoee Middle School in Orange County, Florida hardly qualified as a leader in the use of cutting-edge technology. Fewer than 10 percent of the school’s classrooms had even a single computer to meet the needs of a highly diverse population, 40 percent of whom qualified for free or reduced lunch programs.

Today, things are dramatically different. Chosen by the state of Florida to serve as a model school under the state’s SMART Schools Act, which aims to ensure that new schools are both cost efficient and offer a successful learning environment, Ocoee has made technology central to the way teachers and administrators teach students, communicate with parents and run day-to-day operations.

This month, Ocoee Middle School was one of eight schools across the United States recognized by Microsoft as a Center of Innovation for 2004, joining:

  • Advanced Technology Center, Virginia Beach, Va.

  • Boston Public Schools, Boston, Mass.

  • Christian Brothers College High School, St. Louis, Mo.

  • Detroit Country Day School, Beverly Hills, Michigan

  • Peoria Unified School District #11, Glendale, Ariz.

  • Rio Rancho High School, Rio Rancho, N.M.

  • Tracy Unified School District, Tracy, Calif.

Initiated in 2003, the Centers of Innovation program was established by Microsoft to recognize educational institutions that have demonstrated innovation in using technology to create inspired, connected communities of learning. To be chosen as a Center of Innovation, schools must demonstrate great leadership, strong strategic planning, a solid technology infrastructure, systemic professional development and a commitment to providing a truly connected learning community for their students.

More than 200 U.S. schools were considered for the honor this year, says Mary Cullinane, technology architect for Microsoft’s School of the Future project.

“Walk into 90 percent of the classrooms in America and, due to a variety of reasons, nothing would be different from the educational experience of 30 years ago in terms of technology,” Cullinane says. “Education is the only industry where that statement can be made — not medicine, not manufacturing, not media, not law.

“Yet despite the challenges of funding and time, there are schools in America that are doing more, that are challenging themselves and their students to think about what’s possible, and then to make it happen. The Centers of Innovation program was created to give voice to their innovation and passion.”

Each of this year’s honorees has implemented technology into its operations in ways that genuinely enhance the learning process, Cullinane explains. “In the process, they have shown what can happen when teachers, students, administrators and parents work together to give todays students the skills that are critical for a successful future,” she says.

An in-depth look at two of the schools honored this year — one a public school, the other private — illustrates diverse ways technology innovation can be woven into the educational fabric.

From the Flintstones to the Jetsons

In Florida, Ocoee Middle School was rebuilt from the ground up, beginning in 1999.

Among the features added was a school-wide computer network that provides seamless, real-time communication throughout the school, allowing teachers to automatically provide student attendance and performance information to parents and administrators. Students can log onto computers anywhere in the school with their own profile to do research and homework, and send assignments to teachers. Audio-enhancement technology in each classroom ensures that every student can hear lesson information clearly. Document cameras, projectors and drop down screens provide each student with a clear view of important lesson information.

“Students come to us with a wide range of learning styles and ability levels, which makes it very difficult for teachers to work one-on-one with every student,” says Dr. Katherine Clark, principal at Ocoee. “The technology is an equalizing factor in the learning process because it enables teachers to individualize instruction so that it meets the needs of every student.”

The results have impressed people far outside of the immediate central Florida region. Winner of the Five Star School and Golden School awards from the Florida Department of Education, the school is also a frequent host to educators who come from all over the world to see what Ocoee Middle School has achieved.

“Ocoee has done some unique and very impressive things to reengineer the way they deliver education, run classrooms and manage school infrastructure,” says Microsoft’s Cullinane. “Because they are constantly striving toward innovation, they are creating a learning environment that truly prepares students for the 21st century.”

“I’m so excited for our teachers that we have been named a Center of Innovation,” says Clark. “They’ve worked really hard to make this a success and it’s wonderful for them to get such positive recognition –something teachers don’t get nearly enough of. It’s also a great pat on the back for our parents, who have been very helpful and supportive. Overall, it’s a very powerful thing for our school to be recognized around the nation like this.”

In addition to recognizing excellence, the Centers of Innovation program was established to provide a way for successful schools to share lessons learned and best practices with other schools. According to Clark, many of those lessons and best practices center on training for teachers. When the new Ocoee Middle School building opened, it retained the faculty from the older building. And while those teachers came with a wide range of technical skills and knowledge, they were all accustomed to operating in a learning environment where computer connectivity was limited to the administrative office and the media center.

Explains the school’s Clark, “You have to look very carefully at how you train your teachers. We started by focusing on productivity. In our old school, for example, teachers had to fill out attendance slips and put them on the door by a certain time so student runners could pick them up. It was time consuming and very labor intensive. With the new system, it’s all done on computer, it’s almost entirely automated, and information flows seamlessly from the teacher to the office. Teachers instantly recognized how much time that would save.”

An important part of the teacher training at Ocoee Middle School is what Clark calls a “train-the-trainer” approach that centers on academic teacher teams that include one teacher from each key content area, including science, language arts, social studies and math. Each content team works with a different group of students. One teacher from each content team serves as a master trainer. Master trainers receive more intensive technology training, which they pass on to the other teachers in their content team.

“We formed a community of learners, and everyone was expected to learn and use technology,” says Clark. “My secretary likes to joke that in the old building we were the Flintstones and now we’re the Jetsons. I think that it shows that amazing things can happen when you have the right kind of training.”

Preparing Students for Today’s World

In Michigan, Detroit Country Day School (DCDS) is another Center of Innovation where strong professional development has proven to be a critical factor in the success of efforts to create a learning environment where technology plays a central role. A private school that serves approximately 1,500 students from preschool through high school, DCDS embarked on a comprehensive technology program in 1999.

The goal of that technology program, says DCDS Assistant Headmaster Glen Shilling, is to ensure that students will leave DCDS with the skills they’ll need both for college and the professional world beyond.

“Times have changed and so have expectations,” says Shilling. “We’re committed to developing students who are prepared for today’s world, not the one we grew up in. That’s why every student grade 6 and above, and every faculty member, has a portable computer.”

Today, students use their laptops for in-class assignments, homework, labs and quizzes and tests. They also use public folders in Microsoft Outlook to deliver homework to teachers, and they take advantage of e-mail and Web sites created by teachers to stay connected with their instructors after hours, and to collaborate with each other on projects and homework. In addition, the ability to post current information on the school Web site and exchange e-mail with parents has been the catalyst for a significant increase in parental involvement at the school.

Technology has also had a dramatic impact on classroom instruction at DCDS. One example, says Shilling, is an upper-school math class where students are shown how a calculus formula changes a three-dimensional model on a computer screen. That computer model has enabled the teacher to teach a difficult topic in two weeks rather than six. For Spanish class, students use their laptops as portable language labs to practice and improve pronunciation. In math class, interactive Microsoft Excel spreadsheets help teachers explain everything from the translations of functions to the concept of loans and amortization.

Like Clark, Shilling believes strongly that teacher involvement and teacher training is critical to the success of any educational technology program. And like Ocoee Middle School, teachers at DCDS are central to the training process. At DCDS, a “Technology Across Curriculum” (TAC) committee made up largely of teachers, reviews new technology before it is released. Those teachers then act as a liaison back to their departments.

“It is critical to have buy-in from the people who are most important in delivering education to students,” says Shilling. “Thats why we established the TAC committee. We have great teachers and we wanted to make sure they understood that the goal of all this technology isn’t to replace them, but rather to provide them with another set of tools that would help them improve the way they deliver education.”

The Importance of Leadership

Shilling believes that there is a second important factor in determining whether a school succeeds or fails in its efforts to integrate technology — leadership. For DCDS, that leadership came from Headmaster Gerald Hansen.

“I think it’s very important for people to recognize that it takes someone who has a clear vision of the value of technology and is willing to face the challenges and the risks,” says Shilling. “In many ways we’re a fairly traditional school, and initially not everyone was eager to infuse all this new technology into the daily lives of our students. Today, I wouldn’t be able to take it away from them. That never would have happened without the headmaster’s leadership.”

Microsoft’s Cullinane concurs. “DCDS has tremendous leadership and I’m very impressed by their willingness to the push envelope and challenge teachers,” she says. “The end result is a staff that is dedicated to using technology to augment learning, rather than just for its own sake.”

This ability to adopt technology in ways that enhance learning will become more and more critical as schools strive to meet the needs of students in a complex and rapidly changing world. Because it as at the forefront of the development of information technology, Microsoft can play a valuable role in helping schools understand how to use technologies to achieve educational excellence.

“We’re in a unique position to help schools showcase best practices,” says Cullinane. “That’s why we started the Centers of Innovation program — to give a voice to schools that are doing a great job of integrating technology into education and to provide a forum where other schools can learn the lessons that they have to offer.”

“Microsoft is a leader in information and communication technology,” says Shilling. “So to be recognized as a Center of Innovation is a wonderful honor. It’s also very gratifying to be able to share our story with other schools so they can build on some of what we’ve already learned here at DCDS.”

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