Flush with technology, new Pinellas magnet program caters to young 'digital natives'

From left, Zach Buist, 12, of Gulfport and Khalid Jackson, 11, of Pinellas Park work in Tamara Brooks’ sixth-grade science class.
From left, Zach Buist, 12, of Gulfport and Khalid Jackson, 11, of Pinellas Park work in Tamara Brooks’ sixth-grade science class.
Published Jan. 31, 2016

ST. PETERSBURG — When today's sixth graders were born in 2004, iPods had revolutionized the music industry.

A few lucky college kids had exclusive access to a fledgling social network called the Facebook. "Blog" was declared Merriam-Webster's Word of the Year.

These 11- and 12-year-olds were born fidgeting with devices. So instead of limiting their use in classrooms as educators have done in the past, a new magnet program at St. Petersburg's Tyrone Middle School is flooding them with technology — and nearly eliminating the need for a paper notebook.

The idea is to nurture this wave of "digital natives," kids who have the kind of technological intuition the job market craves.

Eighty-eight sixth-graders are enrolled in the inaugural class of Tyrone's Center for Innovation and Digital Learning, where every student has a Microsoft Surface Pro, a 10-inch tablet used for classroom work, assessments and homework.

A required technology class in sixth and seventh grades will earn them a professional certificate in digital literacy called IC3 Spark and an Information and Communication Technology Certification bundle that includes training in Microsoft Office and OneNote.

By eighth grade, Tyrone hopes its magnet students will intern either at businesses or at high schools with similar curricula, such as Gibbs High's Business, Economics and Technology Academy or Lakewood High's Center for Advanced Technology.

There's even a magnet technology club that acts as a kind of "Geek Squad" to troubleshoot teachers' and students' tech problems. The goal is for students to leave Tyrone as "trilingual," able to work a Surface Pro, a Dell desktop and an Apple MacBook.

All told, the district spent $115,000 in new technology for the magnet.

"We want them to be not only nationally but internationally savvy," said assistant principal and magnet coordinator LaSonya Moore.

The program received 287 applications for the 2015-16 school year, and 52 of them ranked it as a first choice — more than any of the new magnets at John Hopkins, Largo and Lealman Innovation middle schools. Those numbers remain strong for the 2016-17 school year: So far, 283 families have applied, including 55 who ranked it a first choice.

Teachers and administrators say they have noticed increased student engagement and organization. Compared with Tyrone's traditional sixth-graders, magnet students get better grades, have higher attendance rates and only 1 percent have been handed a discipline referral.

Principal Robin Mobley says the program is producing a new kind of learning, perhaps because of the smaller atmosphere and magnet culture.

"In addition to academic engagement, it's the level of responsibility that's evident in kids," she said. "I just think it's something about having a device in their hand that makes them proud."

• • •

A quote from 1980s icon Jon Bon Jovi is on an outside wall of the school: "Success is falling nine times and getting up ten."

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The joke among teachers is that their students are too young to know about their parents' rock stars. Yet in Tabitha Shorter's technology class, 12-year-old Aislyn Hennebohle created an animation of Michael Jackson moonwalking across her screen.

Aislyn now knows where to find animations on the Internet and apply them to Microsoft PowerPoint. When she first came to Tyrone from Rawlings Elementary, she tried to Google topics in the search box of the Windows start menu.

"Now that I'm more familiar with it, it's easier and not as challenging," she said. "I like this stuff we never knew before now."

Information learned in the technology class is used in the core subjects, which are almost completely conducted through students' tablets. A small group of Tyrone teachers attended a boot camp with Microsoft trainers during the summer and traveled to Philadelphia for a technology conference.

"At the very beginning, of course it's something new and (students) were nervous about it and asking questions every five seconds," said math teacher Jessie Boyce.

Her students fill out a form on their tablets to propose how they will illustrate a statistical question. Their findings can be presented any way the students want, but Boyce predicts most will use PowerPoint instead of a poster. "And now they're doing things that I didn't know."

World history teacher Alexander Wong shows photos of his visit to China on a projector while his students follow along on their screens, using Google to search class vocabulary and learn more about the topic. He says his magnet students scored 25 percent higher on their midterm exams than his traditional students.

"It's less teacher voice and more student-paced," he said. "Instead of delivering curriculum, I'm more of a facilitator."

• • •

Lanasha Gwyn initially scored her daughter a seat at Madeira Beach Fundamental Middle, the most coveted middle school magnet in the county based on applications. But Tyrone, at 6421 22nd Ave. N, was closer to their Pinellas Park home, so 12-year-old Layla Thomas became an Eagle.

Gwyn worried that she passed on a better option, but Layla made honor roll in her first semester — an accomplishment she never achieved at Rawlings Elementary. So far, all of Tyrone's magnet students are expected to return for seventh grade.

"She shows us how to do everything because we're illiterate with computers," Gwyn said of her daughter. "I think kids love electronics anyway, so it kind of comes easier to them versus reading books."

Contact Colleen Wright at or (727) 893-8643. Follow @Colleen_Wright on Twitter.