Catholic Sentinel photos by Ed Langlois
Nate Elliott and Ian Pollard, first graders at St. John the Baptist School, listen with iPods turned over.
Catholic Sentinel photos by Ed Langlois
Nate Elliott and Ian Pollard, first graders at St. John the Baptist School, listen with iPods turned over.
On the first day of school a century ago, nuns typically handed each student chalk and a slate. Now, students at Catholic schools receive electronic tablets with powers unimaginable to generations past.

"We are teaching a new era of students," says Jennifer Fargo, a language arts instructor at St. John the Baptist School in Milwaukie. "They are bombarded with information. It used to be that teachers gave information. That model doesn't work any more."

St. John's, located in a largely middle-class suburb south of Portland, was a pioneer among Catholic schools in providing a digital device to every student, an arrangement usually called "1 to 1." Starting in 2011, each primary schooler received an iPod Touch, a small-hand-held device which holds books, math programs, learning games and music. Older students got iPads. Meanwhile, technicians upgraded the building's wireless infrastructure.

It's a pattern that will be repeated at Catholic schools across the state for years to come.  

"It's a tool to enhance curriculum," says Ted Havens, principal of St. John the Baptist. "Learning still comes from the teacher."

As if to prove Havens' point that high-tech gear and old-fashioned labor go together, two fifth grade girls feed and water the school's chickens in a coop just outside his window.

When Havens arrived four years ago, St. Johns was typical in technology. A computer lab held 17 desktop machines. Students rotated in and out all day, chipping away at projects. Havens, a former computer teacher, had heard of districts providing tablets to each student as a way to boost learning. He toured a school in Canby that used iPads.

"We saw students who were really engaged," he recalls. "We saw that test scores went up."

At the next school auction, Havens pitched the idea, asking student volunteers to stroll around the room with iPads. Supporters went bananas, giving more than $70,000 in a paddle raise. The previous record was about $40,000.

"It really spoke to people," Havens says.

Dozens of officials from other Catholic schools came to learn. Both St. John's and Cathedral School in Portland this fall were named Apple Schools of Distinction for 2013-'15, an honor the tech company gave to only four institutions in Oregon and 130 nationwide.  

Today's grade-schoolers are digital natives who grew up fingering devices. Carly Weber, a fifth grader at St. John's, says she has been learning better since the iPads arrived. Her math and spelling achievements have climbed. She's especially thankful for an iPad application (app for short) that reinforced the steps of long division. Jack Gabrish, an eighth grader, says math games have electrified his interest. One game allows the user to build a rocket with each correct answer. When completed, the missile blasts off amid glorious roaring explosions.  

First graders are using iPods to analyze a story while fifth graders are recording skits on iPads. In a hallway, two seventh grade girls are rehearsing a dance routine with music from a tablet leaning against the wall. Eighth graders are researching letters, newspapers and journals from the antebellum South.

Because of the devices — their access to the internet, more precisely — being a student is less about memorizing and more about knowing where to find good information. Grace Butler, librarian at St. John's, says one of her most important jobs now is teaching students how to research well using the internet. She advises youths about evaluating the trustworthiness of sources.  

Havens insists that all teachers must embrace the technology, or success is imperiled. Imagine, he speculates, what would happen if kindergarten is full of iPods and iPads but first grade is not; students might lose their engagement in learning. That said, Havens explains that technology is one piece of learning, not a sole source.

"It's not so much what is coming out of the device that is important, but what we are putting in — the podcasts, movies and stories students create," Havens says.

Elizabeth Docken, fifth grade teacher at St. John's, says the tablets motivate students to learn. The devices also pose a challenge: teachers now need to know technology as well as the content of their academic fields. Docken spends more time than she'd like instructing students on how to use apps or overcome digital glitches.
But tin the end, says Docken, a teacher's job is to help students be successful and technology must be part of that.

The tablets have created a new community dynamic at St. Johns.Tight huddles form as children record a skit on the iPad or listen to a story. Students help one another overcome malfunctions and figure out apps. They email documents back and forth in group projects.  

Cathedral School in Northwest Portland was close behind St. John's, going 1 to 1 in last year. Seed money for the devices and upgrades came from the estate of Suzanne Fields, a descendant of the family that a century ago donated the land on which Cathedral School sits.

Amy Biggs, principal, reports a glitch-free start. Reading comprehension has "flown."  Math skills and computer know-how also have risen. Students who learn by visual cues have improved the most because of the iPad's capacity for graphics.

Biggs says the iPad program has prompted more parents to enroll their children at Cathedral. Two years ago, there were 198 students. Now there are 229. And because the computer lab could go, there is space for a new preschool on campus.
In third grade at Cathedral, Skylar Bordonaro uses an iPad to take a quiz on a book she has just completed. The device keeps track of what she has read and how she does on the quiz, sending a report to the teacher. Students are mighty proud when they pass the tests.

In seventh grade science class, students are making films to simulate protein synthesis. While a textbook may show only one angle of a DNA strand, an iPad can display a three-dimensional model that students can rotate and magnify. They can send observations to each other.

"It is easier to visualize the process," says student Elise Jawed.

"It makes me a better teacher," says Liane Rae, the science teacher. "Games and social networking are what students like. My job is to show them how that can be used in science."

Rae says iPads have created a more collaborative classroom. The teacher is no longer the sole expert. With an iPad in hand, students may be able to offer insight and information to solve a problem.

Schools need a plan to handle obsolescence. At Cathedral, the school will buy a new batch of iPads for sixth graders each year. When students graduate, they take the devices with them. There is also need for filters, lest students go to troublesome websites. Teachers spot check what students are doing, and a program alerts officials when a device has landed in inappropriate territory. Parents pay for damaged or lost iPads, while a warrantee covers devices that malfunction or wear out. A handful of tablets have been sat on or stepped on at the schools.

Catholic high schools are just beginning to go 1 to 1. St. Mary's Academy began this fall, with each student being handed an iPad. In addition to talking about devices, it's important to discuss how they are used for teaching, says Alena Kelly, assistant principal at St. Mary's.

"They are not just productivity devices," Kelly told a panel of leaders from Portland area Catholic high schools this fall. "They are instructional tools."

The delegations heard that having the school provide devices, instead of having students bring their own, can prevent troubling distinctions. Students do tend to send emails during class, Kelly reported. St. Mary's blocked Netflix and Hulu on campus and added technology support staff.  

La Salle Prep and Jesuit High School will go 1 to 1 next fall. Though students — and parents — may have hoped heavy textbooks would disappear, that is not yet the case. Not all publishers are making texts available in digital format. But electronic texts are expected in the future and revised editions could be faster to obtain and cheaper than new paper texts.