Navigating the Open Technology Road
Parents seeking an alternative to public school in Seattle’s high-tech environment have more than 40 to consider. One choice is University Preparatory Academy, in the city’s North End. Enrolling 478 students in grades 6-12, University Prep is an independent, nonsectarian, coeducational, college-preparatory day school. It was founded in 1976 by a small group of local public school teachers.
“Expect something different,” when you explore the Global Education Program, the web site prompts. Look for evidence of “intellectual courage” and “adventure into the unknown.” Immerse yourself in a community where “talented students...involved families...and passionate and innovative teachers” work respectfully to solve problems and give back to the community.
Respect for diversity permeates the school culture:
• People of Color comprise 33% of the administration; 21% of faculty/staff; and 28% of the student body.
• The course list includes World Art; Chinese, Japanese, French, and Spanish; Global Leadership; Human Geography; Linguistics; Biotechnology; Social Justice; Digital Media; The Many Faces of Islam; Waves and Optics, to name just a few examples of the range offered.
Diversity is more than a vision statement at University Prep. It even extends to the philosophy that drives the technology program.
“This school is not monolithic,” explained IT Manager Eric Stratton.
During an interview at inRESONANCE University (iRU) in 2011, Stratton introduced himself as one who spends “lots of time trying to do open source.” His drive for technical creativity is linked to the value of diversity. He offered, “At University Preparatory Academy, diversity is critical. It extends even to the choice of computer operating systems. You want to have ethnic diversity and socioeconomic diversity. We want to see diversity in operating systems as well.
“Everybody becomes used to using one operating system. Learning the the second operating system is really hard, but learning the third is really interesting.
“Not to misrepresent; we certainly have the Adobe suite, and Microsoft Office. But wherever possible, we provide the open source option. We want our students to know you can do it open source for yourself, say, when you’re in college, on a shoestring, if you want to.
“From the perspective of technology,” Stratton continued, “what makes us different from other schools is our decision not to be a ‘laptop school.’ We debated this question for a long time. We ultimately decided there is a different road we want to travel.
“Instead of having a one-on-one computing environment, the ubiquitous computing route with a laptop everywhere you turn, we take the position that classroom time is precious, and the important thing is the students’ interaction with the teacher. We would prefer that the students not have the pressure to focus on their typing, the interacting with the screen. We’d rather have them interacting with the teacher.
“So we spent our resources on the classroom environment, the teacher and the homework.”
The classroom environment
“All of our classrooms are multi-media classrooms with big screens, mounted projectors, mounted speaker systems, dvd and vcr players, and cable tv routed through the projector. Instead of having students all go to the same web site, each on his or her own laptop, the teacher just puts it up on the screen. You can change what you’re showing. It’s very group oriented, very flexible for the teacher. If they want to use computers in the classroom for a given module or task, we have 10 computer labs—four in rooms, and six mobile labs. We add a lab or two a year.”
The curricular piece
“We are implementing technology standards across the curriculum based on the ISTE standards for technology literacy. We are training our faculty so we’re not teaching technology in a vacuum, we are actually teaching with technology.
“We have some technology-heavy classes, such as Journalism and Publications. We have one programming class and one digital arts class. There is one hard core technology class that everyone takes, it’s part of our 9th grade seminar. This course covers topics that don’t fit neatly into other classes, including: copyright, digital rights management, buying a computer, and the ethics of computer use.”
One example of classroom use of the Internet and email is the Middle School’s Global Education program.
Stratton explained how the school network extends services to all student homes. “The homework piece makes us different. We have Citrix web access and Moodle for course management. Students can log in from home, get their assignments off Moodle, do their Geometer’s Sketchpad homework through Citrix, and submit it online. Teacher training is ongoing. Some of our co-curricular activities are using technology, as well. Cross Country has Moodle sites, clubs have Moodle sites.
“We conduct a survey of our families every so often, to be sure we’re aware of any technology challenges. We stress to families that we do not consider it important for them to have a new computer with the hottest software. We advise that it is better to spend their resources on a high speed internet connection. That said, Citrix and Moodle are still functional over a dial up connection.”
University Preparatory Academy installed PORTAL first, and KEYSTONE two years later, in 2008. Stratton explained the school’s decision to change administrative databases. “Before inRESONANCE, we were on SASI for at least 10 years. For our needs, getting data in and out was almost impossible. Being designed for a district of schools, SASI didn’t fit at all with what we were doing as one school. There’s a lot of variation we need to account for: for instance, we are eliminating grades just in the middle school. This year we have started the process with the 6th grade students. They will be evaluated with rubrics and narrative comments instead of grades. With KEYSTONE, we were able to fix all the things that had been straightjacketing us in SASI.
“So we looked around for a Student Information System that would meet our needs. We took quite a while to select a vendor. We asked all internal stakeholders to tell us what they were using our system for; what would they want the new system to do; what would they love the new system to do; and, finally, what they would expect the new system to do in five years. We concluded that there is a lot we are looking to do. Ultimately, we wrote a 14-page specification document detailing what we were looking for.
“In the end, we decided on inRESONANCE—for flexibility, price, and performance. We already knew inRESONANCE solutions are a piece of cake to use, because of our positive experience with PORTAL. We had installed PORTAL in 2006; Admissions was incredibly happy with that decision. Admissions was up and running and cruising in a short time. PORTAL has really helped their efficiency. It made a lot of sense to switch to KEYSTONE.”
At the time of this interview, in October 2008, University Prep’s KEYSTONE installation was in the data cleanup phase. “We switched over to KEYSTONE the second week of school, so we are already using it for tracking attendance and emergency information. So far, teachers love the attendance feature and their ability to look up student information. It’s a one-stop process. In the past, they took attendance and looked at seating charts, but they were limited to looking up only their own students. With the Teacher Access Module (TAM) of KEYSTONE, any teacher can view records of any student in the school.
“We are in the process of starting to do our first quarter comments. It’s a big change. SASI couldn’t handle narrative comments, so we had a home-grown Access database. Teachers would have to enter grades twice, once for the transcript, and then for the comments. Now, with KEYSTONE, teachers are able to go into the same package they use every day for attendance. It is a simple thing to enter the class comment for a section and have it appear on the record of every student in that class. KEYSTONE is very flexible.”
Stratton referred again to the positive experience their Admissions Office has had with PORTAL. Stratton referred us to Associate Director of Admission Melaine Taylor for details.
Taylor is effusive: “PORTAL is amazing,” she told us. “We have been nothing but thrilled.”
We had met Taylor, part of the University Prep delegation at the recent iRU, but asked our questions by phone during the busy week of the school’s final fall Open House. Taylor wanted prospective clients to know this: “The difference in our office since before we had PORTAL has been incredible, in a positive way. Before PORTAL, we used an ancient DOS system. It was difficult to manipulate the data, and it required considerable training to be able to work it. I had never used FileMaker before, but I found FileMaker was really easy to learn. It’s so user friendly, and a real time-saver. All the information we need to pull weekly—a lot of the reports and statistics—it used to take a full day to pull this information. Now we need only five minutes to pull a report. We were able to create the different reports we need and load them in when we installed PORTAL."
University Prep receives upwards of 800 inquiries per year. 500 students apply.
Taylor has been in the Admissions Office since 2003.
"We take good advantage of the ability to send out broadcast emails. We used to spend a lot of time filling out postcards reminding applicants of what they still needed to provide, and printing letters inviting families to different events. Now we are able to reach out online all the time, so easily. It’s very personalized. We just feed the information from PORTAL through BROADCASTER. And all the right information comes through!
“We are able to communicate so much more quickly now. I can’t imagine going back to the way it was.
“In fact, there have been times when someone from another office in the school has come to us, saying ‘Hey, we heard there’s a way to send out a blast email that looks like it comes from me...’ They used to come to us, but