Wednesday, Apr 16, 2014
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Pinellas school district gets grant to create technology school

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CLEARWATER — A substantial grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation may lead to a new tech-savvy school and seven or eight “school-within-a-school” programs throughout Pinellas County.

The school district received the $64,518 grant earlier this year for a New Tech Network School, according to a memo sent to school board members earlier this month. The New Tech Network schools evolved out of the Napa Valley Unified School District in California in 1996 and are run by a non-profit organization that uses personalized models for each student based on “project and problem-based learning,” with a focus on using technology in the classroom.

The initial grant money will cover the administrative and technical costs that come with opening a New Tech school, and the school district expects to get more money from the Gates Foundation to complete the project, according to the memo. The design team, which includes the school district’s director of special projects, Jan Urbasnki, and Executive Director of High School Education Rita Vasquez, several principals and several other school district offices, has been charged with completing a five-year plan for the project by the end of January.

Though the immediate focus is on opening just one school, additional funding will be available in the future and the “long-range vision” for the school district includes seven or eight “school-within-a-school” New Tech Network sites.

Each New Tech Network school classroom has a Web-enabled computer for each student and is equipped with other technological tools and programs. Much of students’ work is completed and tracked online, which helps students, teacher and parents monitor progress, as well as connect with similar student projects completed in schools throughout the country, according to the New Tech Network website. The schools also focus on project-based learning and students are expected to collaborate on a variety of projects that require critical thinking and communication to complete their courses.

According to a 2013 report by the New Tech Network, this kind of learning resulted in graduation rates that were 6 percent greater than the national average and college enrollment rates that were 9 percent greater than the national average. The study also found that high school students in the schools often outperform college freshmen in areas that require critical thinking. With 63 percent of the nation’s jobs expected to require a college degree by 2018, the schools also place a huge emphasis on higher education, according to the New Tech Network website.

School Board member Terry Krassner said conversations about opening the new school are still in the very early stages. Currently, the only New Tech Network schools in Florida are the Flagler Institute of Integrated Investigations in Palm Coast and Putnam EDGE High School in Palatka, though there are 134 schools operating in 23 states and Australia. Both of the Florida schools opened this school year.

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