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April 23, 2014

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Clark County’s charter schools experiment with technology

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Paul Takahashi

Explore Knowledge Academy Board of Trustees President Benjamin Childs, EKA Executive Director Abbe Mattson, Clark County Schools Board Member Lorraine Alderman, Clark County Schools Director of the Office of Charter Schools Daniel Tafoya, iSchools Campus Chief Technical Officer Galen Manning and EKA Foundation Chairman Art Vivas break ground on EKA’s new Mountain Vista campus on Friday, July 8, 2011.

Explore Knowledge Academy iSchool

Imagine a school where kindergartners use Apple iPads to learn numbers and letters and upperclassmen use them to study the constellations and create multimedia presentations.

It’s not far-fetched. By next school year, Nevada will have its first “iSchool” opening at a Las Vegas charter school.

Tuition-free charter schools are different from traditional public schools because they are granted a contract, or charter, that gives them greater freedom in setting their curriculum and budget in exchange for more accountability.

“Charter schools, part of their mission is to innovate; they’re considered to be laboratories when they’re created,” said Tom Pitcher, founder of iSchool Campus, a Utah-based company that is partnering with charter schools across the nation to cultivate high technology schools. Pitcher has helped Vista Academy in St. George, Utah, and Cumberland Academy in Tyler, Texas, become iSchools, equipped with the latest Apple technology from the small iPod Touch to large iMac computers.

As part of iSchool Campus’ next project, Explore Knowledge Academy — a Clark County School District charter school — will become the first iSchool in Nevada. The charter school, which broke ground last week on its newest campus in the southeast valley, will provide a new Apple iPad for every student and teacher next year.

In addition to iPads, classrooms will be equipped with iMac computers and MacBook laptops, as well as a high-speed, high-capacity network to support all the technology.

The charter school’s foundation will pay for the $1 million technology upgrade, EKA Foundation chairman Art Vivas said. (The five-member foundation, appointed in 2008, receives input from parents and board of trustees.)

Although the School District pays the same instructional dollars per student it gives other schools, it does not provide a school building or funding for facilities. So charter schools have looked for creative ways to pay for these expenses. Some rely on foundations. Many operate in temporary facilities, such as church basements and community centers.

On the plus side, charter schools can develop different teaching methods.

Explore Knowledge Academy uses project-based learning: Upper-level students make projects — presentations, dioramas, plays or dances — to demonstrate their knowledge, based on the curriculum and state standards. The iPads and Macs will help these students research and create these projects, Explore Knowledge Academy Executive Director Abbe Mattson said.

“It’s very interactive for the student,” she said. “The more interactive, the more students want to learn and the more curious they get, and the more they learn.”

Using technology in the classroom is not a novel idea, nor is it one that everyone supports. The School District’s decision to purchase $1 million worth of iPads for administrators last year was controversial. With school districts across the nation facing budget deficits, Pitcher said it’s difficult for traditional public schools to put iPads in the classroom.

“School districts can’t drop a million dollars into every individual school,” Pitcher said. “They’re too financially strapped right now and politically it’s hard, too. We’re trying to educate the public in how to do this.”

Explore Knowledge Academy began a pilot program with 25 iPads last year at its three current campuses — at Whitney Mesa, Sandhill and Community Lane — to see how they would mesh with students, Mattson said. When the schools consolidate and become an iSchool in 2012, it will have a 1-to-1 computer-to-student ratio, up from 1-to-2 last year among the upper-level students, she said. The consolidated campus will be at 5871 Mountain Vista St. in the southeast valley. The expansion will help the academy go from 567 students last year to an estimated 700 students in the fall. The new campus can hold a maximum of 800 students, Mattson said.

Construction at the 60,000-square-foot campus is expected to cost up to $4 million, to be paid for by EKA Foundation.

The big move was envisioned in 2008, when the K-12 school renewed its six-year charter with the Clark County School District. By 2012, the three vacant office buildings at Mountain Vista — victims of the recession — will house classrooms and a multipurpose room where students can present their projects. Outside, students will have 1.6 acres of playing fields and a basketball court.

Las Vegas resident Dell Stoltenberg, 46, was one of the original parents involved when the school opened nearly a decade ago with about 300 students. Stoltenberg’s daughter graduated from Explore Knowledge Academy two years ago and her son will be a sixth-grader next year.

Stoltenberg said she remembers her children’s classrooms held in a garage and dance studio, and having gym in an outdoor parking lot. The new campus and technology overhaul is a “dream come true,” she said.

“I stuck through it through thick and thin and I’m glad, and my children are glad, we’re here,” Stoltenberg said. “We made do … Now we’re doing it bigger and better.”

Here is how the campus will be developed:

    • Explore Knowledge Academy
      Photo by Paul Takahashi

      Phase 1

      The first phase of campus construction will renovate Building 1, which will house K-5 students, said Art Vivas, president of the Explore Knowledge Academy Foundation. That will be completed by Aug. 15, just in time for the school year beginning Aug. 30.

    • Explore Knowledge Academy
      Photo by Paul Takahashi

      Phase 1

      The first phase of campus construction will renovate Building 1, which will house K-5 students, said Art Vivas, president of the Explore Knowledge Academy Foundation. That will be completed by Aug. 15, just in time for the school year beginning Aug. 30.

    • Explore Knowledge Academy
      Photo by Paul Takahashi

      Phase 2

      The second phase will involve the two other buildings and house sixth- through 12th-graders, administration offices and a new multipurpose room. Explore Knowledge Academy and builder-partners The Boyer Company hope to complete the second phase by December.

    • Explore Knowledge Academy
      Photo by Paul Takahashi

      Phase 2

      The second phase will involve the two other buildings and house sixth- through 12th-graders, administration offices and a new multipurpose room. Explore Knowledge Academy and builder-partners The Boyer Company hopes to complete the second phase by December.

    • Explore Knowledge Academy
      Photo by Paul Takahashi

      Phase 2

      The second phase will involve the two other buildings and house sixth- through 12th-graders, administration offices and a new multipurpose room. Explore Knowledge Academy and builder-partners The Boyer Company hopes to complete the second phase by December.

    • Explore Knowledge Academy
      Photo by Paul Takahashi

      Phase 3

      The third phase will create a playing field on 1.6 acres of the 3-acre property and a basketball court next to the field.

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    1. You provided some info on funding, but not enough. Who is paying for all the computers and so forth? What is the Explore Knowledge Foundation? Who else is contributing? Also, how have the students at this school fared on standardized tests?

    2. @teacher:

      As a CCSD charter school, Explore Knowledge Academy receives the same per-pupil allotment as other schools in the School District. However, because they do not receive funding for facilities, EKA -- like some charter schools -- used a foundation to raise money for their new campus and technology. The EKA Foundation, a five-member fundraising body, is the one raising the total $5 million ($4 million for the campus and $1 million for the Apple technology) from investors and partners. For example, builders The Boyer Company is funding the build-out of this new campus for EKA.

      In our sidebar/related story (a brief overview on charter schools in general), you'll find how EKA fared on standardized tests. At Explore Knowledge Academy, students made Adequate Yearly Progress in all grade levels during the 2008-09 school year; however, it did not make AYP at the elementary school level during the 2009-10 school year.

    3. I'm sorry, but an iPad is a poor example of technology being used for academia.

      iPads are gadgets that are primarily used for entertainment. Videos, games, quick e-mails, and web-browsing. They are limited in their use of practical applications that allow learning to take place.

      The iPad is more of a nuisance in a class setting.

      Not true? Here are:

      All-Time Top Paid iPhone Apps
      1. Doodle Jump
      2. Tap Tap Revenge 3
      3. Pocket God
      4. Angry Birds
      5. Tap Tap Revenge 2.6

      Source: http://www.networkworld.com/news/2011/01...

      More sources describing top apps on iPad.

      http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2010/12/10....

      Point - Schools need to use practical technologies - PC Tablets that run Windows 7 -

      Simple:

      Potential Employer: Do you have experience with Windows platforms?

      Potential Employee: No, but I carry my iPad with me everywhere I go. I can add you on Facebook too!

    4. unlv702, I don't know that a blanket statement like "The iPad is more of a nuisance in a class setting", simply because the most popular apps are for entertainment purposes. You could make that same statement about a lot of technology. The fact is that there are ways to use them for educational purposes.

      At the same time, you can't say that simply getting an iPad is enough to make it a revolutionary, high-tech environment. It's more about how they're being used. More information on how they're used, and how they make learning more efficient and effective would be nice. I think that's a story in and of itself.

      Also, charter school proponents should be careful not to claim that charter schools alone are the answer. As we've seen, charter schools, empowerment schools, and any other labeled school category have examples of success and examples of failure, just like every other school. There are a lot of factors to consider when comparing standard public school performance to charter school performance.

      It would be interesting to see a few case studies, where we see if there are dramatic improvements when specific kids go from standard public school to a charter school. YOY test score improvements, or other objective data should be used. That should be a major factor in determining whether or not a school is successful. Just my opinion, of course.