Innovation Spotlight; Program Opportunity

By Wendell B. Sumter
Communicator
June 2013, Volume 36, Issue 10

Great Falls Elementary School is a small, rural, Title I school in Chester County, South Carolina. But we didn’t let that deter us from applying to be considered a Microsoft Innovative Pathfinder School. Last spring, I worked with kindergarten teacher Stephanie Barber to answer detailed  questions about how our school integrates technology in classrooms and uses it to propel professional development. We were enthusiastic about the possibility of our school being chosen, but we knew that it was a long shot.

The Program
In October 2012, Microsoft named our school a 2012 Microsoft Innovative Pathfinder School.  The honor was bestowed by the Microsoft Partners in Learning Program, which is a 10-year, nearly $500 million commitment to transform K-12 education around the world by connecting teachers and school leaders in a community of professional development. The program also helps school leaders foster innovative teaching practices and 21st century learning by providing tools and resources they need to better impact student participation.

A key component to the program is connecting selected schools by having them mentor each other, and by inviting them to conferences to let them share best practices for achievement. In 2012, only 99 schools worldwide (nine of which were in the United States) were named the most innovative schools in the world, out of thousands that applied, and we were one of them.

Microsoft selected Great Falls Elementary because of the technological strategies we use to engage students through an innovative, challenging curriculum focused on inquiry-based, hands-on learning. Teachers work collaboratively to create a culture of excellence by using technology to support learning across the curriculum, addressing student needs based on assessment data. But we also work to provide an innovative professional learning culture. As a Professional Development School in a partnership with Winthrop University, teachers use a Lucy panoramic camera from Kogeto not only to reflect on teaching practices, but also to share what they have learned about effectively integrating technology into the curriculum with teachers locally, and across the country.

Three years ago when I arrived at Great Falls Elementary, we had a basic computer lab, while some teachers had Promethean whiteboards, and there were two computers in each classroom. Since then, we have increased student access to technology in various ways. Technology doesn’t take the place of authentic teaching; the most important thing to me is teachers being able to use technology to enhance student achievement.

The Experience
When we were selected as a Pathfinder School by Microsoft, Mrs. Barber and I had the opportunity to attend Microsoft’s Partners in Learning Global Forum in Prague, where administrators and educators convened to share their schools’ tech success stories. We also had the awesome opportunity to form partnerships with other schools from around the globe and continue professional development through Microsoft’s Virtual University.

We teamed with 11 other schools, including a mentor school from New Zealand, to focus on customizing lessons and training teachers to effectively use technology tools. Through virtual meetings, we continue to brainstorm and share ideas and resources. Collaborating is a big benefit of being a Pathfinder School, I have the ability to say to my colleagues, “Did you try this at your school?” and “How did it work?” Through this partnership and working with 11 other schools, I learned the importance of collaboration and the benefit of connecting with others for the academic success of all students. I learned that it doesn't matter what part of the earth you come from, we all have the same goal in mind, which is to make the world a better place by providing the best education possible to the students we all serve.

At the Partners in Learning Global Forum, we were treated like celebrities and people were genuinely excited about education. Instead of comparing data, we discussed firsthand the issues our students and staff face in preparing our young people for a globally competitive society. I didn’t hear anyone complain about budgets, money, or kids not being good. No one complained about parents’ lack of involvement. The conversations centered on how to do what we do better. It was refreshing. I am still excited about the wonderful opportunities that are ahead though our partnership with Microsoft. 

If you believe that you can transform teaching and learning through technology, I strongly encourage you to apply for the 2013-2014 Pathfinder and Mentor School Programs. The deadline is September 30, 2013.

Wendell B. Sumter is principal of Great Falls Elementary School in Great Falls, South Carolina.


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