Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Fairfax County School District in Virginia – support from above

Arlington: N: 38º 53.281' W: 077º 06.515'
It was time today to visit the Fairfax County Public Schools Office to discuss the support that has been provided to schools to introduce spatial technology. As most people reading this blog know, the drive to introduce GIS into the classroom in Australia has come very much from the grassroots. That is, motivated and innovative teachers have become early adopters and in cahoots with Australian geography teacher associations have developed the resources and training for teachers to use GIS in the classroom. Whilst there have been instances of system support via curriculum development and in Queensland the ICT Innovation Centre, overall there has been minimal investment by educational authorities in terms of license purchases, teacher training, advisory support, hardware purchases and teaching material development. The situation is quite reversed in the Fairfax School District of Virginia, with the District investing enormous amount of energy and money into GIS implementation in its high schools and trying to take teachers and schools with them to the promised land!
Here are a few facts to set the scene:
* The Fairfax County Public School District is the 14th largest in the US containing 29 High Schools.
* The district office is considered as a progressive system open to innovation and change.
* All the way back in 1992 the district redeveloped Earth Science as Geosystems with a systems approach and GIS as the keystone technology. It was considered that GIS would provide a visualisation capability which would enhance the learning of the students in the area of earth science education.
* In 1996 the state of Virginia bought a statewide ESRI license for ArcView 3 and the Spatial analyst extension. This enabled all 6-12 schools to have access to the ESRI product and as a first stage of implementation they equipped all High Schools with Geosystems labs.
* The cost of the statewide license in schools was dependant on the number of schools and students. In Fairfax District it involved 889 teacher and student seats according to the license agreement. With each computer alone costing approx $800 this alone was and significant investment in the technology by the district.
* The Fairfax County GIS Department gave the school their local Virginia data for classroom use. This data plus all the supplied ESRI data means that schools have access to 4.5 gigs of data for their programmes.
* Each lab was equipped with 15 computers, scanners and at least 8 GPS units.
* Teachers were also given laptops to use at school and home to learn the programme.
* The District also bought 3 support packages from so as to provide technical support to teachers and technology personnel in schools.
* The establishment of Geosystem labs was supported with an extensive teacher training programme with the expectation that all Geosystems teachers to be trained.
* All schools in the Fairfax District have appointed a School based technology specialist who has the brief to train staff in technology and be a trouble shooter in the school. These specialists must have teacher registration. They are not the information technology technician but rather teacher support by a teacher.

As can be seen this was an expansive programme with significant coordination and investment. The person I talked to in the District Office was Yvonne Griggs, the High School Instructional Technology Specialist (www.fcps.edu/DIS/OHSICS/index.htm). Yvonne has been intimately involved in the process over the past years and in 2006 began a new push to speed up implementation. As a result new labs have been established and the ESRI ArcGIS 9.2 programme has been rolled out to all schools in association with a new teacher training initiative. The training and teacher resource material have been predominantly established by Kathryn Keranen and Bob Kolvoord, my hosts of the past few days. The teacher training has involved 5 night time sessions called Academy classes (this is PD tied in with the renewal of teacher registration). The training course includes work on the provinces of the US, weather, DEM models, plate tectonics, climate, GPS and a school based projects. As is the case with many of those involved in driving the GIS initiative in schools, Kathryn has enormous passion and energy for the implementation of GIS in schools. Kathryn was kind enough to give me copies of her 5 CD’s titled ‘Geospatial Instructional Applications Workshop’. These will be interesting viewing to see how Kathryn’s approach compares with ours in Australia to teacher training. Kathryn can be contacted via kkeranen@bellatlantic.net. Have a look also at the Towson University Centre for Geographic Information Sciences at http://cgis.towson.edu/staff/emp.asp?e=kathrynkeranen to get an idea of Kathryn's involvement in GIS training and resource development. Yvonne also said as part of this new push that it is hoped to introduce GIS into the middle schools over the next year.
I found the meeting at the Fairfax County Public Schools Office with Yvonne and Kathryn to be of enormous value as a model of system implementation. Such support is what many of us in Australia who are trying to implement from below dream about! However despite all the support, I think Yvonne and Kathryn would agree that the uptake by teachers and schools is still spotty and much more needs to be done in the area of teacher training and curriculum integration. As mentioned in previous blogs, the introduction of the SOL testing in US schools over recent years has slowed down the implementation process and in some places actually put the skids on the innovation of GIS into classrooms. A meeting is actually being held at James Madison University tomorrow with the folks I have met and other key players such as ESRI to discuss the future of GIS in schools in Virginia and the established programmes in particular. I am sure with the energy and commitment of all of those I have met over the past 4 days in Virginia, the implementation curve will continue to happen in Virginia.

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