Local schools seek community help bridging technology divide

Members of Asheville Middle School’s First Lego League Team show off some of the robots they’re building to a group of community leaders. Photos by Jake Frankel.

To thrive in the uncertain job market of the future, students will need to become proficient with technological tools that are advancing at a lightening pace. And to help them keep up, the Asheville City Schools Foundation is seeking community partners to build on recent successes and overcome a range of challenges.

The nonprofit hosted a Jan. 24 school tour to highlight the issues involved to a diverse group of about 50 local leaders, from government officials to entrepreneurs.

As technology advances continue to drastically reshape the economy, about 60 percent of today’s elementary students will find themselves working in jobs as adults that don’t even exist yet, according to Matt Whiteside, director of instructional technology at Asheville City Schools. A child with an iPhone now has more computing power at their disposal than all of NASA had when its first astronauts landed on the moon — presenting vast new opportunities, he said.

However, with nearly half of Asheville City Schools students living in poverty, a growing technology divide could leave too many children behind, said Whiteside. When families can’t afford to provide the necessary technological tools and internet access for their children, it’s incumbent on public schools to try to provide the necessary resources, he argued. “We have students who don’t have access,” he said. “We need to help our students bridge the technology divide.”

To help fill the gap, Asheville High School has issued laptops to all incoming ninth-graders since 2011. One of the next steps is figuring out how to ensure those children who don’t have Internet access at home can get it, said Whiteside. However, the funding for any such new initiative is uncertain, he said.

Providing tools

Last year, the Asheville City Schools Foundation awarded local schools $22,000 in grants for projects designed to increase access to technology. Some of that went to Asheville High science teachers Amanda Schoonover and Jenny Thomas, who used it to produce 150 instructional videos. Giving students access to the customized video lessons helped empower them “to take responsibility for their own learning,” said Schoonover. “When you provide more opportunities for kids to use technology in the right way, they have less time to use them in the wrong way.”

AHS science teacher Amanda Schoonover

However, she cautioned that such new media lessons shouldn’t be looked at as a way to replace teachers or an excuse to overcrowd classrooms. Developing positive personal connections between students and teachers is “even more important for those in poverty,” added Kate Pett, executive director of Asheville City Schools Foundation.

Meanwhile, over at Claxton Elementary School, 30 first-graders were issued iPod Minis last year to help them with lessons in math and reading. The school also received a $4,124 grant from the foundation to upgrade Claxton’s video lab, where students produce news broadcasts and podcasts.

And at Asheville Middle School, instructors are implementing a wide array of initiatives, including a “Cougarbotics” program which teaches students how to build and operate robots.

AMS students show off new multimedia projects to a group of community leaders.

“We are so proud of the programs we have here and the support we have from the community,” said AMS Principal Cynthia Sellinger.

Public appeal

But amid a challenging government funding environment, Pett said the schools are increasingly looking for outside partners to help take their technology initiatives to the next level.

One such partner is the Asheville-Buncombe Sustainable Community Initiatives group, which is hoping to build an “engagement center” for teachers. The idea is to provide training to teachers in new technologies that can be beneficial in the classroom, said Robin Cape, the organization’s executive director. She hopes that the training will also tie in to the Economic Development Coalition’s vision of growing the local economy.

“Our schools are one of the leaders in this work – a primary partner for building our community,” said Cape. “It’s going to be their world.”

Meanwhile, schools are in search of technology mentors to partner with teachers to help support projects and look for ways to enhance learning, said Pett. The foundation’s also looking to fill spots on a Technology Advisory Committee that’s charged with the overseeing those goals.

For those with less spare time to help, the foundation is also recruiting those with expertise who could make one-time presentations at special events. And of course, the foundation always welcomes donations to its technology fund, says Pett.

The appeal for citizen participation is about putting “the public in public education,” she says.  “The vast majority of children will always be educated in public schools. They are the best option for children to be ready for success.”

Claxton Elementary teacher Mary Head and students Siyuna Boyd and Thayer Mahan hold up a poster they made thanking the Asheville City Schools Foundation for its support.


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About Jake Frankel
Jake Frankel is an award-winning journalist who enjoys covering a wide range of topics, from politics and government to business, education and entertainment.

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