Pinellas' new technology magnets see glitches, enthusiasm as training begins

Two new Pinellas technology magnets tackle setbacks as they begin training for teachers.


There were hiccups. Monday was the first day of training for dozens of teachers at Gulf Beaches and Kings Highway elementaries, and though the new schools have been vaunted as technology magnets, the wireless went down at Kings Highway, where the new staffs gathered.

Not all of the iPads they'd been handed were loaded with the applications they needed. The microphone at the front buzzed static, and teachers took notes with paper and pencil.

But perhaps most alarming was the news from a district official that the iPads their students would be using had not been ordered yet and might not be ready by the first week of classes in August.

Pinellas hasn't opened a new school in 10 years, and on Monday it looked a little rusty as it prepared to open two of a brand-new variety. But what the district lacked in recent experience, it made up for with enthusiasm as shown by the teachers and principals who showed up for training that will last the week.

"They will be here if I have to go pick them up myself in New York City," Kings Highway's new principal, Garyn Boyd, said of the unordered iPads. "What about you guys? Up for a trip to New York?"

The teachers laughed. Throughout the day, their training exercises offered glimpses of how lessons might look different at the tech magnets.

After an icebreaker, the teachers were grouped by grade level and sent off on a scavenger hunt that required them to scan optical labels known as QR codes. Cody Piland, a project coordinator in the district's academic computing department, told them about classrooms that linked QR codes to videos, texts and even teacher websites for the students to find quick activities and specially tailored lessons.

Emily Steiner, a kindergarten teacher at Gulf Beaches, couldn't find the QR application on her iPad. Piland told the teachers to share with members of their group who did have the scanning app. Mitchell Carney, a third-grade teacher at Gulf Beaches, asked if the building's wireless was down. It was.

"That's probably the No. 1 tip: Calm down, it's all good, we're going to get there," Piland said. "Teach your students to be patient, just like you have to be, right?"

The first clue in the scavenger hunt: "Find the place where kids get to rest after they take their FLKRS test."

Students who took the Florida Kindergarten Readiness Screener would be in the kindergarten pod, naturally; so the kindergarten team raced off to find the building. When they got there, they were told they couldn't go to the nap area, or inside at all, because renovation crews were working on Kings Highway's floors.

After the hunt — which also required the trainees to shoot video and take photos showing they'd completed tasks — the teachers were told to brainstorm a sample lesson plan using the iPad apps.

The kindergarten team talked about students taking photos of shapes they were learning or objects that began with the alphabet letters they're learning.

"The whole idea of a technology school excited me," said Steiner, who previously taught kindergarten at Jamerson Elementary in St. Petersburg. "The possibilities are endless. If everyone in my class had an iPad last year, think of all the things we could've done, not a minute wasted, and so much engagement."

Robert Kalach, the new principal at Gulf Beaches, said he and district officials have discussed lessons that could be applied to traditional schools if the magnets are successful.

"The sky's the limit, really," he said.

Originally, district officials said Gulf Beaches and Kings Highway would follow the "flipped classroom" model, wherein students learn new concepts through video at home, then reinforce them in the classroom.

Sara Truelson, a program coordinator in the academic computing department, said the schools will use this concept but not rely on it entirely because the children are elementary-aged. She prefers the term "blended learning."

The teachers will continue to train on the iPads through Thursday, then will train on their new SmartBoards later this summer. Parents also will attend an iPad training where they'll sign a "contract" agreeing to be involved with and monitor their children's use of the devices.

And so — although Boyd, Kings Highway's principal, was concerned about the potentially missing iPads, whether her families would have Internet at home, and about funding for the programs to put on the devices — she said she was excited, and told the teachers that they ought to revel in their excitement too.