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Jen Boynton headshot

Dell, Google Technology Inspires Oakland Middle Schoolers

By Jen Boynton

"Sometimes they just need to bang on something really hard," principal Claire Fisher explains to me when discussing middle schoolers at Urban Promise Academy and the need to maintain the drums in their music program. The middle school keeps energetic students banging away through a variety of grants, fundraisers, and general elbow grease from a pack of community members who are committed to improving Oakland's Fruitvale district.

Fruitvale's BART station gained national notoriety as the location of the fatal police shooting of unarmed passenger Oscar Grant. Urban Promise Academy (UPA, pronounced oo-pah) is a small middle school with a student body that is 87 percent latino or hispanic. Fifty-six percent of the students are English Language Learners, and 90 percent of students qualify for free and reduced lunch. In short, it's a group of students who didn't start out with a lot of advantages. But UPA is not interested in focusing on the past, it is interested in getting these students to "college, career and beyond."

Part of that preparation means making sure that they have an opportunity to engage with the technology that they'll need in the future. There are many sections of Oakland where upwards of 50 percent of the residents don't have computers or internet access at home, so the pressure is on schools to introduce the students to the technology that will help them be successful in life.

UPA has partnered with Dell to put Chromebooks in the classroom. In fact, there are over 10,000 Chromebooks in use throughout the Oakland Unified School District. OUSD selected Chromebooks in part because of their affordability, but also because of the learning flexibility afforded by the Google Drive platform. Each school has their own opportunity to decide how to use the Chromebooks, and UPA's approach utilizes creativity to get every student's needs met and bring the student body as a whole into the digital age.

At an event yesterday keynoted by Van Jones (in support of his #yeswecode initiative), we got to see some of the more innovative projects these teachers and students are turning out with basic Chromebooks and access to the internet.

Ms. Sears, the teacher of the school's STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) program for high-performing students, has an engineering background, but she uses Chromebooks in her classroom to get the students learning how to code. As she puts it "I want my students to have the skills and knowledge to get jobs at the local tech companies when they leave school." Math teacher Mr. Ramirez uses Chromebooks to offer individualized education to each of the 20-30 students in his classes. Some work independently using IXL to meet their foundational math needs if they are behind, some  take Khan Academy courses, some work in small groups (with tape recorders) to do common-core problem solving, and Mr. Ramirez works with a small group on performance tasks. These groups rotate so each student gets a chance in every setting.

6th and 7th grade science teachers Ms. Lehman and Ms. Ball teamed up to offer a program whereby the students designed an experiment to be conducted on the International Space Station. Over the course of half a year, the students worked in small teams to research a problem, create a hypothesis and develop an experiment to test it in microgravity, using the Chromebooks. The computers allowed the students to work on the same document in real time and allowed the teachers to offer questions and comments in the body of the text as the sections of the problem statement came together. Scientists from U.C. Berkeley and NASA volunteered to review and critique the experiments, creating a truly scientifically rigorous assignment. One of the student groups' projects -- on the efficacy of worms at composting in microgravity -- actually won the competition to have their experiment carried out on the International Space Station -- the first time an Oakland public school has been accepted.

With the funding constraints facing public schools these days, it's great to see one example of a school doing a lot with a little, and engaging, inspiring and preparing students along the way.

Jen Boynton headshot

Jen Boynton is the former Editor-in-Chief of TriplePundit. She has an MBA in Sustainable Management from the Presidio Graduate School and has helped organizations including SAP, PwC and Fair Trade USA with their sustainability communications messaging. She is based in San Diego, California. When she's not at work, she volunteers as a CASA (court appointed special advocate) for children in the foster care system. She enjoys losing fights with toddlers and eating toast scraps. She lives with her family in sunny San Diego.

Read more stories by Jen Boynton