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SMART Boards Engage Early Learners at Sparta

Who knew counting to 134 could be so interesting?

Here’s how Sparta Area Schools first-grader Troy Jones does it: He uses his finger to pull a block of 100 squares onto a computer screen higher than he is. Then he does the same with three blocks of 10 and four ones.

With this kid-friendly technology, called a SMART Board, students at Ridgeview Elementary School are feeling smart and learning a lot, their teachers say. “It’s an amazing tool,” says Marcia Powell, Troy’s teacher. “It just makes a world of difference, for all levels of learners.”

Hers is one of only two Ridgeview classrooms equipped with SMART Boards. But thanks to a $46,000 grant from community donors, all general-education classrooms at Ridgeview and White Early Childhood Center will have the boards or interactive Wii projectors next fall.

Sparta school officials recently announced the project, a technology upgrade educators say will help teachers engage their increasingly tech-savvy pupils.  “This is a gift that will affect all kids,” says Ridgeview Principal Nicole Peterson. “We’re equipping teachers with strategies and resources to be able to do their jobs more effectively.”

Community helps fund upgrade and training

A consortium of community groups came together to help fund the effort. Sparta School Board Vice President Jim Kerby led the way with a $15,000 grant from the Kerby Family Foundation, an amount matched by the Sparta Education Foundation. The Sparta Community foundation also pledged $15,000 and ChoiceOne Bank kicked in $1,000. Sparta Area Schools will provide up to $37,500 toward the projected $83,500 cost.

Superintendent Kent Swinson said teachers will be trained in the technology to ensure it’s “a tool for learning,” not an end in itself. “It’s going to truly benefit instruction for children,” Swinson said.

Ridgeview’s plunge into smart technology evolved from teachers’ desire to update classrooms that were “not tech-friendly to kids,” Peterson says. Small TV monitors linked to computers were not easy for pupils to see or for teachers to use.

Three teachers researched area schools and found large visuals and interactivity were key to student learning. The school installed two SMART Boards as a pilot project, first on loan and later purchased through a donation.

Ridgeview then applied for a $10,000 technology grant from the Sparta Education Foundation, but the award went to Appleview Elementary for Chromebook computers. That’s when Kerby, who takes a special interest in early childhood education, stepped in to build a coalition of donors.

Engaged learning, fun games

Their grant will enable the school to purchase 18 SMART Boards along with eight interactive projectors. Powell, a 12-year teaching veteran, says using the SMART Board has made “a night-and-day difference” for her students. She said it makes demonstrating concepts to students much easier.  Students can manipulate images on pull-down screens and physically interact with a lesson. 

“It engages the kids so much more in the learning,” Powell says. “You really feel that they’re with you.”

Her students use it to mark calendar days, record the weather, do math problems, manipulate shapes and watch educational videos. They listened to author Eric Carle read his classic, “The Very Hungry Caterpillar.” Plus, says Troy Jones, “We can do games on it sometimes.”

Adds Powell, “I cannot imagine teaching without it.”

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Charles Honey
Charles Honey
Charles Honey is a freelance writer and former columnist for The Grand Rapids Press/ MLive.com. As a reporter for The Press from 1985 to 2009, his beats included Grand Rapids Public Schools, local colleges and education issues. Honey served as editor of The Press’ award-winning Religion section for 15 years. His freelance articles have appeared in Christianity Today magazine, Religion News Service and the Aquinas College alumni magazine. Read Charles' full bio or email Charles.

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