Schools - March 23, 2011

Critics say teaching style the issue, not technology

by Renee Batti

Teachers, parents, administrators and others in the Portola Valley School District are sharply criticizing an article in the Almanac's March 16 edition that they say grossly misrepresents the district's classroom technology program.

The article cited the district's hiring of a new social studies teacher earlier this year, and the exodus of a large number of sixth- and seventh-graders from the classrooms of social studies teacher John Davenport, into the new teacher's classes.

The story quoted Mr. Davenport saying that the reason for the creation of new classes to parallel his was that parents were complaining that he was using technology too intensively, and that they wanted a more traditional teaching style for their children.

But district administrators and others say the classroom division had nothing to do with technology, but rather with complaints by parents of Mr. Davenport's teaching style.

"We moved our son out of Mr. Davenport's class not because of technology, but because he was receiving a sub par education in social studies, as had several of our older children," Karen and Guy Lucian wrote on the Almanac's Town Square forum. "The new class is refreshing, on point, appropriately more rigorous, uses technology in well-thought out, integrated ways, and we cannot thank the administration enough for giving us this option," they wrote.

Superintendent Tim Hanretty said last week that he can't discuss personnel matters, but said he was accurately quoted in the March 16 article, saying that Mr. Davenport's class did not address the learning needs of all the students in the classroom.

He and Assistant Superintendent Carol Piraino said in an interview that technology was not the issue. Ms. Piraino noted that Timothy Sato, who was hired to teach parallel classes to Mr. Davenport's, is using a comparable level of technological tools to teach his classes.

The creation of parallel classes, they said, was to provide options for parents who believed their children's needs were not being met.

The fact that parents had options, they said, wasn't properly conveyed in the March 16 article, which said that the district "sent" 42 of Mr. Davenport's 77 sixth-grade students to Mr. Sato's classrooms. It was up to the parents to decide whether to transfer their children, they stressed.

Mr. Davenport this week disputed the district's statement that technology was not the issue in the creation of parallel classes. In two meetings with administrators, he was told that parents weren't happy with his switch from a traditional lecture-discussion format to a tech-intensive research format, he said in an e-mail.

He was told that the unhappiness "was due to the high level of computer use, and a letter written to the parents announcing the split social studies (classes) specifically mentioned my use of technology as precipitating factor in the hiring of a new teacher," he wrote. "Thus, to try to decouple my 'teaching style' from my use of technology is disingenuous, at best."

The school district launched its "21st Century Learning" program about five years ago, introducing interactive white boards, laptop computers for each student, and other technological tools to the classroom, and offering teacher training in their use.

The technology initiative has gained much recognition both locally and nationally as a model program, according to Linda Yates, a Portola Valley resident who helped shape the program.

Mr. Hanretty noted that the statement in the March 16 article that the district had spent $4 million on its technology program over the last four years was incorrect. The district actually spent about $984,000 since the 2006-07 school year, he said.

School board members, some of whom have extensive knowledge of sophisticated technology, closely scrutinized proposed purchases and staff costs as the program developed, Mr. Hanretty said.

Board president Bill Youstra said the board's intent was to ensure that enough funding and teacher training was provided for the program, but added that the board monitored it closely to make sure it was "effective, but cost-effective, too."

Ms. Piraino and Mr. Hanretty said that the district's teacher-training aspect of the technology program was given short shrift in the March 16 article, which referenced a monthly technology tutorial as the prime method of training. "(Technology specialist) Kim Brown has spent hours and hours with those teachers," Mr. Hanretty said.

In addition to Ms. Brown's training work, the district has a Teacher on Special Assignment (TOSA) program that recruits and pays teachers with an interest and certain skill level in a particular technological area — such as interactive white boards or Google Docs — to become a specialist in that area, and then help train colleagues, they said.

Parents, teachers and others in the school community commented on the March 16 article in the Almanac's Town Square forum, and the newspaper received a letter challenging the article from Portola Valley's Linda Yates and Jenn Kuhn, who said the letter was signed by more than 300 people. The letter is published as a guest opinion on Page 15.


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