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Virtual high school hooks students and staff

April 06, 1997

By KERRY LYNN FRALEY

Staff Writer

SMITHSBURG - Smithsburg High School began its technological odyssey three years ago, when the school became part of the Maryland Virtual High School, a collaborative effort between 16 schools in the state.

Through grant money from the National Science Foundation, the school was able to integrate more computer usage into its science and math curriculum and hook up to the Internet, said Principal Michael J. Shockey.

"That gave us kind of a peek into the future," said Shockey, whose school since has become a model for implementing the Washington County Board of Education's system-wide technology plan.

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The school's major renovation three years ago included setting up a local area network, or LAN, to link all the school's personal computers together and allow internal and external communication, Shockey said.

At that time, the science and math departments made a decision to invest their shares of the renovation money on equipment rather than expanding or upgrading furnishings, he said.

Their technology arsenal now includes computers with Internet access and programs that allow them to conduct experiments and create models, calculators that can graph algebra problems and laser disc players that show images in conjunction with the textbook, said chemistry teacher Philip Hammond.

"The students I have that leave here and go to school can step right in," said Hammond, a 35-year teacher, who has seen a big increase in the amount of time he has to teach thanks to technological time-savers.

Last year, each classroom in the school received a multi-media computer with an e-mail program that could take advantage of the school's local area network, Shockey said.

The e-mail program has proven an effective means of communication within the school as well as a major time- and paper-saver, said Shockey, who credits the system for helping him prevent panic when a small amount of fuel was spilled near an air vent recently.

As they receive more training, Shockey expects teachers in other areas will rapidly increase the use of their classroom computers - all with Internet access - for instruction.

"The science kind of shows you how far it can go because it's really three years ahead," he said. "But it's not going to take long for the others to catch up."

This year, the school got a program that can be used for all kinds of administrative tasks including taking attendance, recording grades and keeping student information, Shockey said.

A group of 20 teachers who received training in the program over the summer taught their peers the basics this fall, Shockey said.

All teachers are now using the program for attendance, and more and more are grading on computer as well as trying out the program's many other uses, he said.

"It has just caught fire, and everybody is teaching everybody, and it has become a super-positive morale builder within the staff," he said.

Implementing the school's technology plan requires a lot of work but has already paid off in a great improvement in the day-to-day operation of the school, said media specialist Ken Baker, who serves as technology coordinator at Smithsburg High.

The staff has taken to the new technology, which benefits the students by freeing up more of a teacher's time for lesson preparation, Baker said.

The administrative software has made calculating grades and attendance much faster and provides up-to-date records she can easily access for parents, administrators and fellow teachers, teacher Lana Moore said.

"I am absolutely at a loss when my computer is down," said Moore, who teaches computer programming and math. "I never want to go back to keeping grades and attendance in a grade book, nor would I want to work in a school that doesn't have e-mail."

The internal e-mail system has saved a lot of footwork, she said.

"I spent half my planning period running around trying to track down other teachers or Mr. Shockey," Moore said. "Now I can e-mail them."

Moore said she's anxious for the school's computers to be linked with the Washington County Board of Education's central office computers through the wide area network (WAN).

For one, she said, she won't have to fill in bubble sheets to report grades and attendance anymore.

And it will be more efficient to e-mail central office staff than call them on the telephone, she said.

Because of the timing with the school's renovation, Smithsburg High School was chosen to be the school system's "prototype" for technological upgrades throughout the system, said John Davidson, the school system's supervisor for computer-related instruction.

"It's definitely valuable," Davidson said. "We can find the pitfalls ahead of time before we do it in other schools."

Davidson said he put his whole budget for 1995-96 into buying computers, printers and software for Smithsburg High School.

The long-term goal is to create a local area network in every school and put a multi-media computer in every classroom, he said.

At this point, only 364 of the 1,244 computers in Washington County's public high schools have multi-media capability, he said.

"We have a lot of old computers out there," said Davidson, who hopes to add 194 new computers to the school next year.

Junior Jess Price said she's glad for the opportunity to work with advanced computer programs like STELLA, which allows her to work with complicated chemistry models that would otherwise be too time-intensive.

"I count myself very lucky," said Price, 16. "Out in the world, everything's computers now, and we have a head start on that."

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