It's a Tuesday morning, and most of the kids at the Ronald McNair School in southeastern Queens, N.Y., are excited. The forecast is for up to eight inches of snow, which could mean an early end to the school day. In one corridor, 30 students are abuzz--but not so much about when they can leave as when they can get into a particular classroom.
The group is Sylvia Leslie's fourth-grade class, one of four remedial groups scheduled to use McNair's multimedia personal-computer network. The snow is coming down in thick flakes, but the kids hardly notice as they put on headphones and become absorbed in the computer-generated lessons that will teach them how to count money and differentiate between "it's" and "its." The room's silence is broken only by occasional hushed cries of "yes" and "all right," signaling that a student has successfully completed a hard task or quiz.
Replacing textbooks and "drill and practice" workbooks is a network of 30 PCs running software designed by Jostens Learning Corp. Music, narration, and graphics make lessons "come alive." In one case, kids learn about acute and obtuse angles from a fisherman--who, the computer notes, is traditionally called an "angler."
TIMELY LESSON. "I love it when I get math," says 9-year-old Kevin Mullings. The fourth-grader is learning about time by watching an animated clock move its hands. "I love the art," he says as the computer shows him why "3:15" is also known as "a quarter-past three" since the minute hand is at "3" and marks off one-quarter of the clock's circle. When the PC shows Kevin the next clock face and asks him to enter the time, he knows it's "1:30." When it comes to tests, "I never get under 90," says Kevin, who loves math so much that he hopes one day to be a scientist because "they use math a lot."
This aspiring scientist is just one example of the transformation that is occurring among the 180 students using McNair's multimedia technology. "They're more focused in here," says Leslie, who has been using the Jostens setup since it was installed three years ago. In fact, the students become so focused on the terminals in front of them that there's a special arrangement the children use to get a teacher's attention while in the lab. If students have questions, instead of raising their hands and stopping what they're doing, they place a red cup atop the computer monitor. A green cup alerts the teacher that the PC is administering a "unit test" to the student.
Teachers also get a lot out of the network. Leslie and her McNair colleagues appreciate the high-tech help the system offers, such as compiling detailed reports for each student. By scanning the readouts, a teacher can see where extra attention is needed: If Stephen didn't do well in fractions, it shows up in how long it took him to complete that lesson. Once a pattern is established, the teacher can order supplemental lessons that the file-server computer will assign to Stephen for the next session.
MOVING UP. And Leslie says time spent in front of the PC re-inforces what children are learning in the nondigital classroom. "When they take my tests," she says, "they say, 'Oh yeah, I remember that from
the computer.'" Leslie says she has seen some kids' test scores jump from the 70s to the high 90s.
What's more, the kids in the lab are moving up on national achievement scales. The U.S. government minimum is for every student to show "0 NCE" (National Curve Equivalency), which means that in one school year, a child has done the work required. In New York, the requirement is 1 NCE, twice the federal minimum. According to the New York City Board of Education, the 144 kids in McNair who logged more than 20 hours in front of a PC last year showed an impressive 8 NCEs in math. Reading scores were up just 1 NCE, but McNair's community school district is working to improve on that this year.
Impressive? Sure. Anything that can get a child's mind off playing in the snow qualifies as a miracle machine.