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December 18, 2017

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District schools excel at technology, amplifying the student experience

It’s a sunny morning in the 21st century. There are no cities in the sky, no flying cars, no Rosie the Robot Maid.

On the other hand, there is Jaime Esparza.

He’s the teacher in Room 608 at Lyal Burkholder Middle School in Henderson, and he is employing digital technology to instruct his students.

Esparza, 33, teaches reading. He is speaking above the preteen din with an “audio enhancement device,” a static-free microphone, quizzing his children about symbolism and mood using a “smart board,” a white board that acts like a computer screen, with a program downloaded from the Internet. They answer him by tapping on infrared “responders,” remote control-like devices that tallies answers.

Scenes like Room 608 play out all over the school district of more than 300,000 students.

Indeed, in December, amid worries over budget cuts and student performance, the Clark County School District won a surprising honor: It ranked first among large school districts for its computer services.

The distinction illustrates how the district took advantage of the building boom of the last decade, when it was erecting almost a school a month, to install the latest in digital equipment such as smart boards and the more humdrum infrastructure like wireless networks and computer servers. Although there are no cost estimates for individual classrooms, computer-assisted classrooms are more expensive than more traditional bricks and mortar because computers are especially thirsty for electricity and need reliable cooling and heating systems to keep them from going haywire.

The annual survey was conducted by the Centers for Digital Government and Education in Folsom, Calif. Janet Grenslitt, the centers’ survey director, said the ranking was a measure of how relatively little other districts in the nation, made lean by years of budget cuts, have spent on computers. The centers don’t disclose how many districts were surveyed — only the top 10 small, medium and large districts.

A look Burkholder and Room 608 shows how the district did it.

Opened in 2007, the school has about 900 sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders. Their mascot is the Jaguar and they greet each other with tiny half-clenched fists in the air and cries of, “Paw Up!”

Recently, just after lunchtime, Esparza fusses with his “audio enhancement device,” a potato-size microphone that hangs around his neck and sounds clearer than a regular microphone.

As children bounce in, hopped up on sandwiches and dreams, Esparza will need it.

He takes attendance (29 out of 30 students are in), calls for calm by raising his half-fist. Then he girds for the earsplitting to come.

“Today,” Esparza says, “we’re playing ‘Fling the Teacher.’ ”

Yays, whoops and applause.

Behind him is a smart board, where normally a blackboard would hang. A device that acts something like a small projector is bolted to the ceiling. It links the board to a laptop computer.

Esparza has downloaded the instructional program from the Internet. It allows him to write his own multiple-choice questions, time the children’s responses (they get a minute or so to answer), and record the answers on-screen, which are then tallied and displayed.

The children use small gray responders to pick one of the possible answers to the question.

The fun: the more correct answers from children, the more a caricature of a catapult is assembled. Complete the catapult (on-screen, it’s called a trebuchet, a battle catapult from the Middle Ages) and a caricature of a teacher (mortarboard, goofy glasses, head but no body) gets flung.

Bedlam ensues.

The game, Esparza explains after class, gets the children’s competitive juices pumping. Keeping the children engaged is half the battle in instruction, Esparza said. And on a recent visit, the children were engaged, out of their seats, hands in the air, wanting to be recognized. “I’m always giving them tests, I’m always giving them homework. Here’s an opportunity for the children to beat me,” he said.

For example, one Esparza question was “The (blank) of a piece of writing is the way it makes a reader feel.” Possible answers: a) tone, b) symbolism or c) mood.

One student touches an answer on the smart board, the rest of the class answers by responder. Partisans for one answer or another make their positions known with whoops. It looks and sounds like a kiddie “Price is Right.”

“C” was the correct answer, and 26 children responded correctly (three answered “B”).

“Ninety percent of you got it right!” reads the smart board. Another cartoon part went into the teacher-flinging catapult. Paws pump the air. (In one class, the Esparza cartoon got flung; in another, it didn’t.)

“Pat yourself on the back,” Esparza says. They do.

Hayley Chacon, 11, said after class she likes the smart board and game.

“It’s fun to play on,” she said, especially when she gets the right answer, “because it makes me feel good, makes me feel like I’m smart!”

How about when she’s wrong? “It makes me feel a little embarrassed,” Hayley said, “because everyone’s watching you choose an answer.”

Perhaps the most important modern device for Esparza is the microphone. Studies say children can’t learn because they can’t hear the teacher, he said.

“Without the audio enhancement device, if you’re sitting in the back of the classroom, you can’t hear,” he said. “With it, teaching is a little more personal.”

Besides the microphone, smart board and responders, iPods and desktop computers are also used, Esparza said. The students can’t surf the Internet but can consult an online library organized by the school or the district.

Like any technology, the classroom devices can go on the fritz. The wireless network won’t work, the iPod Touch won’t touch, and the PC goes dark.

“You always need to have a Plan B and a Plan C and a Plan D,” Esparza said. “You have to have it or your lesson plan is out.” It happens from time to time and because of the centralized nature of the district, computer help is at the district level rather than nearby at the school.

Meanwhile, in Room 608, the children have correctly answered enough vocabulary and reading-skills questions to build a trebuchet. The body-less head with a mortarboard is catapulted. Kids are out of their seats and cheering.

Esparza smiles with satisfaction. “You guys are so mean,” he said.

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