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Jordan High - Photo: Solange Castro Belcher © 2001
The Few, the Proud, the Technologically Literate: A Portrait of Technology Pioneers in Urban Schools

by

Solange Castro Belcher

Jordan High School is located just North of Lynwood between a series of housing projects in an area of Los Angeles where the household income averages $16,964. A nearby factory emits fumes and loud noise and seems to be the destination for a number of large cargo carrying trucks. According to the 2000 Academic Performance Index 78% of Jordan students, comprised of 23% African-Americans and 77% Latinos, participate in the Free and Reduced Lunch Program. Herschel Sarnoff, a history teacher who has taught at Jordan High School for 29 years, believes that the school’s population consists of some of the poorest kids in the country.

Still, Jordan’s arsenal of over 800 computers ranks high in the Los Angeles Unified School District and the school can boast several sophisticated computer labs and classes, such as, Geographic Information Systems and Digital Animation. Much of this computer equipment has come through government funding provided to bridge the ubiquitous "Digital Divide" in the form of California’s Digital High School Grant and the Title 1 grant. However, despite these efforts, technology remains unused in many classrooms.

"In the old days, the only way to get out of the ghetto was sports. The new way is technology. Only one out of a thousand went into the NBA or to Pro Football, but with technology we're having a 100% impact."

Oreliano Nava, another teacher at Jordan, feels that "a small percentage of teachers who have access to this equipment know how to use it. Without teachers who know how to use this equipment properly, it’s not going to transfer to students." Sarnoff believes that for many teachers "it’s just another gimmick that will fade along with the others."

However, unlike the latest text book or teaching method, technology has hardly proven a fading or fleeting matter in our society. Instead it has proven a growing and integral part of today’s workplace, schooling and overall living. Sarnoff, who teaches Geographic Information Systems, a challenging mapping program, believes that "these are the tools they need for life" and that teachers who choose not to introduce their students to technology may be doing them a tremendous disservice. In a school where he estimates 15% of graduates attend college or University and 85% to 99% of his students are behind in their skills for their grade level, Sarnoff teaches his students technology in order "to give them some skills, so that they have something going for them."

Over the years, Sarnoff has pressured the school administration for computers for his classroom which now hosts 22 computers for his history and social studies students. He believes that technology not only gives his students skills they can use in the work force, but finds that his students learn far more when using a computer and that he has fewer discipline problems.

Jordan High - Photo: Solange Castro Belcher © 2001

John Finn, who opted out of his six-figure job as a CFO of a communications company to teach at Jordan High School, has also brought a technology-based pedagogy to the school. Finn converted an old auto body shop into a sophisticated computer work station and repair center, and works with private companies such as Boeing, Sony, Nikon and Panasonic to procure new and used computers. Finn spent his Saturdays cleaning out the auto body shop that is now home to students interested in learning computer networking. Finn additionally helps his students acquire Microsoft and Dell computer technician certificates so that they may go on and get better jobs.

"In the old days, the only way to get out of the ghetto was sports. The new way is technology. Only one out of a thousand went into the NBA or to Pro Football, but with technology we’re having a 100% impact." Finn gives away many of the computers he acquires or repairs. "Our goal is to give 1,000 (computers) away this year," he states.

Ruwan Jayasinghe has served in a similar role in acquiring technology resources for Roosevelt High School. "When I first came here there was one computer lab. I taught myself networking…I started wiring places in the school. We shopped around and negotiated with USC to have free internet access. I personally maintained it." Jayasinghe worked to get dial-up access from home for teachers and taught workshops for people working at local schools, all while teaching a full load of classes and without any compensation outside of his teaching salary.

"The way I look at it, I’m an immigrant from Sri Lanka. I didn’t have any education, only a high school diploma. When I came here I had no qualifications. My starter was financial aid and tax-payer programs. I consider this payback."

"The test-taking craze is out of control. Teachers don't have time to do the things that they pedagogically think is important. For some of us, technology is one of those things."

Jayasinghe has proven a strong advocate for technology and has lobbied his administration for a computer lab supervisor who could maintain the labs after school. Jayasinghe believes that students need more time to play and work on computers outside of class but "somebody has to pay to keep them open." Unfortunately, Roosevelt High School has yet to make such a commitment, offering only the option of exchanging one teacher for a technology support staff person at the school. Removing one teacher would increase the number of students in each class and result in hurting the teachers and the students overall. Jayasinghe and fellow teachers have chosen not to accept this option. Since Roosevelt received funding through the Digital High School Grant, Jayasinghe no longer works to salvage old computers or negotiate T1 lines, but stays busy training and assisting teachers and students in implementing technology further into Roosevelt classrooms.

Like Jayasinghe, Chris Yusi, a fifth grade teacher at Braddock Drive Elementary and Joanna Goode, a teacher at Santa Monica High School, have both worked with their colleagues to increase their knowledge of technology.

"The transference of knowledge or know-how comes from the top. If you don't have teachers or administrators who know how to drive forward with this technology, it isn't going to go anywhere..."

Yusi conducted classes instructing teachers how to do research on the Internet and Goode taught teachers how to use grading software. However, Yusi felt support lagging in his school. "As the support at school trailed off, so did the involvement with my class. Now I’m just like a tech support guy, I just trouble shoot. It’s a volunteer position basically." Yusi believes in the importance of technology, but claims that "it doesn’t take much to curb any momentum towards implementing this technology in the classroom."

Teachers such as Yusi and Goode play important roles as technology pioneers in school systems based on a world that had yet to meet the Internet or the PC, let alone rely so heavily on technology for everything from banking to entertainment. Without such teachers committed to technology, students can easily move through an educational system with few computer skills. From the perspective of a teacher, even a committed one, new technology can seem an unnecessary hindrance. According to John Finn, "a school can have a Spanish teacher and she’s a wonderful Spanish teacher. Suddenly, she has a computer system that she can’t work. All she knows is that before she had this interference she was a wonderful Spanish teacher." Chris Yusi agrees that even the "newer, more enthusiastic teachers, just don’t see the value in it."

Why Do Teachers Resist Technology?

The commitment of teachers such as Sarnoff, Finn, Jayasinghe, Yusi and Goode, who possess either a personal passion for computers or a strong sense of the importance of technology, can indeed provide an important influence on students lacking access to technology in their homes and communities. However, while these technological heroes prove a valuable resource, the question remains, why is technology so absent in the classrooms and why are teachers with highly developed skills so rare?

Jordan High - Photo: Solange Castro Belcher © 2001

Paul Broughton, an English and Economics teacher at Jordan High School for over 30 years claims that when it comes to technology "teachers don’t have time to learn." Eva Horeis, a fifth grade teacher at Addams Elementary School claims that in addition to not having access to a computer in the classroom, "I’m a techno-phobe. I am terrified of using computers for anything other than what I know – word processing and e-mail." Judy Bernbaum, a computer instructor at Woodworth High School concurs that "there are a lot of teachers scared of computers."

Erika Benadom, who has a Masters in Educational Technology from Pepperdine University, works with the Lennox School District to incorporate technology into Lennox schools with funding from the Technology Literacy Challenge Grant. However, despite this hearty investment of time and money, Benadom finds teachers neglecting to incorporate technology into the classroom.

"You would think you could walk into the classroom and see the technology being used. We’re discovering that that isn’t true. We’re trying to figure out how we can change this. Is that part of school culture? When you put in 8 or 10 computers but not one for every child it changes the way many people teach. If you’re not comfortable with differentiation and small groups, it’s challenging."

"Urban schools are driven by the imperatives of testing and control and this undermines opportunities for teachers to make creative uses of technology."

Many, like Benadom, fault the "culture" of education for not yet acknowledging technology as an important and viable learning tool. Administration plays a key role according to Benadom who laments, "there’s not time in the school calendar to focus on it. " Navos concurs, "The transference of knowledge or know-how comes from the top. If you don’t have teachers or administrators who know how to drive forward with this technology, it isn’t going to go anywhere no matter how much technology we have."

Some educators point to time and resource-consuming distractions. Joanna Goode, a computer science teacher at Santa Monica High School finds hindrances, such as standardized testing, detrimental to a teacher’s goals. " The test-taking craze is out of control. Teachers don’t have time to do the things that they pedagogically think is important. For some of us, technology is one of those things." John Rogers, a professor of Education at UCLA, points to the lack of resources put into professional development for teachers. "Urban schools are driven by the imperatives of testing and control and this undermines opportunities for teachers to make creative uses of technology." Additionally, teachers working in schools where the Open Court reading curriculum is mandated by districts must spend precious time learning the highly structured program. Bernbaum laments that in a profession already arduous, "teachers are overwhelmed by Open Court."

For now teachers such as Sarnoff, Finn, Navos, Jayasinghe, Yusi and Goode remain crucial and vital figures in their schools in the emerging art of incorporating technology as a tool for learning. As schools continue to catch up materially, with the acquisition of computers and cable lines, these teachers will continue to play vital roles in not only introducing and teaching technology to urban students, but acting as leaders in advocating the implementation of technology in their schools.

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Solange Belcher Castro is an editor of Teaching to Change LA.
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