Technology for Productivity

Don Estridge High Tech Middle School in Boca Raton, FL, (The School District of Palm Beach County), which serves 1,229 students in grades 6-8, opened in the fall of 2004. As the name implies, the school boasts a lot of technology. SPM recently spoke with Assistant Principal Michael McCurdy to find out what technology is being used and how. Ironically, he notes that, while the technology is special and comprehensive, the school has something else that makes it even more unique.

SPM: Don Estridge wasn’t constructed new, but was a renovation of an existing commercial facility. What’s the story behind the renovation?

McCurdy: The building was designed by the renowned architect Marcel Breuer, one of the fathers of Modernism, for the IBM Corp. It was Facility Building 051, known as the Skunk Works. Phillip Donald Estridge and his team developed the first IBM PC in the building. Of course, it was done very clandestinely. Now known as“father of the IBM PC,” Estridge’s office was in this building. It was a manufacturing center.

As IBM went through the machinations of downsizing — condensing its Boca Raton facilities — this building was put on the market. Our district was urged to buy it, potentially as a high school. We bought it on our Land Banking Program. As time passed, it became clear that the demographics were driving the need for a middle school as opposed to a high school.

The property was redesigned by the West Palm Beach office of Melbourne, Fla.-based BRPH Architects-Engineers Inc., to serve as a middle school complex.

SPM: Don Estridge isn’t your ordinary middle school, is it?

McCurdy: No, it isn’t. With more than 170,000 students, we’re the 11th largest school district in the nation, and our emphasis is preparing students for the future. To that end, the district offers Choice Programs, where some schools use themes to create educational environments that respond to student interests, celebrate cultural and ethnic diversity, and foster student achievement.

Don Estridge is a Choice Program school, which means we offer unique experiences and opportunities using technology as an educational tool that integrates core academic requirements into a challenging and dynamic curriculum.

More specifically, the school replicates a liberal arts college with extraordinarily high education standards. We have vocal and instrumental music. We teach Family and Consumer Science — what you and I used to know as Home Economics. We teach Digital Journalism. Everything is done with a traditional liberal arts emphasis with strong academic standards and expectations for the children.

SPM: How do teachers and administrators use technology as an educational tool to ensure the students accomplish their goals?

McCurdy: We use technology to deliver a service. We went into the business world and asked what skills are today’s students lacking when they enter the business world. We asked what technologies are being used to deliver curriculum and assessment. Then we brought that technology into the building.

For example, IP telephony (integration of voice and data networks) was new and big at the time. We chose it because of its affordability. Because our technology network is delivered across the telephone network, if I move my office, I simply unplug my phone, take it to my new office, plug it in, and the network finds me. It became a productivity tool for us.

Also, we have a completely wireless network. A teacher can open a laptop, Blackberry, or PDA anywhere in the building and connect to the district’s network.

Then there’s technology in the classroom. Every classroom is equipped with an LCD ceiling-mounted projector. Any peripheral that requires a video signal, like a computer, DVD player, or VHS player, can be attached to the projector.

Complementing that, all classroom architecture is tied into a sound-field saturation system. Four speakers are mounted in the ceiling, and the teacher wears a microphone connected to a transmitter that transmits the teacher’s voice to the speakers. It amplifies and saturates the classroom with the teacher’s voice so that the child in the back hears with the same clarity as the student in the front. Soundtracks, DVDs, AV clips from the Internet, and more can be attached. It even attaches to a student’s hearing aid.

SPM: With so much technology, what’s your focus?

McCurdy: Our emphasis is not on all the bells and whistles. Rather, it’s on technology that has been folded into the daily instructional model. The technology provides our productivity tools. From bell to bell, we want the teacher to teach and the student to learn, so we do everything we can to enhance productivity for teachers ands students.

One productivity tool is our locking system. Doors lock and unlock at class changes for security. We use classical music to indicate a passage to the next class, and the doors automatically open. Also, teachers use cards for keyless access, which can be programmed for access to specific areas at specific times. This allows us to meet additional safety and security needs.

In addition, we’re serving as beta test site for a firm that manufactures biometric readers. We’re using them for attendance. As a student enters a classroom, he or she places his or her hand on a reader, so that attendance is taken in real time and automatically sent to the office.

SPM: How do students have an opportunity to use technology to directly impact individual learning?

McCurdy: We have technology that enhances productivity, facilitates curriculum delivery and provides real world applications. For example, everyone in the real world uses a computer, so students should, too. The book report as we knew it is passé. Now, students develop Websites in the flavor, tone, and style of the author and market the books they’ve read, presenting whatever the curriculum objectives and benchmarks are. This is what I’d do in the real world, to market a book I’d written.

Science provides another real world application example. In the real world, if I did an experiment, I’d take the data from the experiment, put it in an Excel spreadsheet, and then use that information to construct pie graphs and charts. Then, I’d fold it into a PowerPoint presentation for delivery. Our students are doing that.

Similarly, we are fortunate enough to have a television studio and teach television production.

SPM: How has this school been received by the community?

McCurdy: The school has been received well. In fact, each year we receive 1,200 applications for the 412 sixth-grade seats. Admission is by lottery. Each student is assigned a random number and placed into a computer program. The numbers are randomly drawn by a computer. The program is run by a third party, so there’s no corruption or favoritism.

SPM: How can other school districts replicate what you’ve done?

McCurdy: Everything we have done can be replicated with an average budget range for the startup of a school this size. That’s not special. What makes us special is having a world-class faculty with high standards, and having the expectation and belief that students can meet and even exceed those standards.


Facility Specifics

The original IBM Facility Building 051 was designed in Bauhaus style, for which architect Marcel Breuer was known, and which is characterized by severe geometry of design and economy of method. BRPH Architects-Engineers preserved the original building’s exterior facades and extensively renovated the interior to house administration, classroom, media, and technology functions. New buildings added to the campus, including a cafeteria and gymnasium, celebrate the original style by embracing its geometry. Situated on 28 acres, the academic area is 180,220 sq ft. Completed in August 2004, the total project cost was $25.6 million.