2020 Recap

As I write the annual Penn Manor technology year-in-review, I have little inclination to add to the COVID-19 conversation. The past nine months embody the toughest chapter of my 24 years in education. But as I decompress and reflect in the serene space before the new year, it’s clear the important story of 2020 is brilliant progress in the face of extraordinary challenges. Penn Manor staff and students rallied, improvised, and persevered to make the best of a thorny situation. Here are a few technology highlights from a remarkable year.

About 142 months ago, (January!), we hosted a unique coding workshop for nine students and six teachers. Led by Kelsey Derringer from Bird Brain Technologies, the teams collaborated on a project that culminated in a float-filled Robot Rose Parade. Students and teachers used household materials and Hummingbird Robotics kits to create and code contraptions with lights, sensors, and motors programmed to mimic the movements of a parade float. It was thrilling to watch mixed student/teacher teams invent and construct a creation of their own design. The whimsical and wondrous workshop sparked a STEM interest in middle school girls and introduced the robotics kits to middle and high school teachers.

Also in January, we launched an internal student data tool called Omni Board. Omni Board is a data dashboard that pulls together longitudinal student information and helps administrators discover trends, by grade level and building, across a multi-year student dataset. Omni Board supports Penn Manor’s ongoing student equity initiatives by surfacing otherwise hidden insights into instructional programming.

And then… March. Just as Pennsylvania schools closed to help flatten the pandemic curve, Velocity Fiber completed construction of the district’s new 10GB fiber wide area network. The new network is a huge leap forward in capacity for Penn Manor schools. Although the spring closure delayed the full use of the new network, it performed flawlessly when our students returned in person in August.

Of course, the abrupt shift to emergency online school was our main focus from March 13 to the end of May. School buildings were closed, but many on the team regularly worked 14-hour days to provide virtual tech support for students, teachers, staff, and families. We ransacked all corners of the district to pull, prep, and distribute laptops to students and staff suddenly learning and working from home. We designed, built, and launched a remote learning activities website to keep instruction moving. We fielded and resolved a record number of tech support requests. We clocked hundreds of hours of professional development and support time on Google Meet. With offices closed to the public, we raced to transform new student registration to a 100% virtual process. And we made it to the end of the school year with our sanity (mostly) intact.

After a fleeting moment to catch our breath in June, work focused on the start of the 2020-21 academic year. Besides it being a unique school opening, the new STEM wing at Penn Manor High School was ready for students. As the first major school construction project milestone, the STEM wing maximizes student collaboration by bringing together the applied engineering, agricultural science, math, and science departments. It’s a fantastic space for teaching and learning!

The first of our three new high school technology courses had a strong launch despite COVID schedule challenges. CompSci: Creating and Making is not your typical JAVA course—it’s a project driven exploration of code and creativity. For example, students built interactive displays for an automated Halloween parade and explored the hero’s journey in storytelling to program a two-level video game. They work with Python, shell scripting, AI concepts, the BBC micro:bit, and Hummingbird Robotics Kits.

In January 2021, we launch its companion course, CompSci: Communicating and Creating, and the new studio course, Music Technology: Creating and Producing. Thanks to Dr. Molly Miller, Mrs. Kristina Fulton, and Mr. Andrew Johnson for developing and teaching three excellent technology opportunities for students.

Schools across the country faced serious laptop supply shortages and shipment delays because of the sudden shift to remote learning. They reported device shortages that ran well into November and even December. But right before Labor Day we cheered as the last batch of our student laptop order hit our receiving dock. Thanks to the school board’s quick spring decision to approve the extension of the student one-to-one laptop program, our equipment arrived in full by September. The 2,000 new Dell laptops were distributed to grades one, two, and three, and used as a second teacher device for virtual instruction.

But wait, there’s more! Other highlights include:

  • Finished our first augmented reality sandbox, thanks to student technology apprentice Aidan Lewis
  • Facilitated a successful virtual summer Scratch code camp for elementary students
  • Added the Seesaw learning platform for teachers and students in Kindergarten, grades one, and two
  • Replaced and upgrading dozens of wireless access points in elementary and middle school buildings
  • Implemented Google G Suite Enterprise for Education, with advanced Google Meet features
  • Eliminated legacy Windstream phone lines (and costs) and moved to VoIP phone service
  • Kept the Penn Manor eSports team playing; Watch them on Twitch!
  • Provided cameras and support for live video instruction for quarantined/remote students and teachers
  • Developed (internally) and launched a new Penn Manor mobile app
  • Supported the sudden dramatic expansion of Penn Manor Virtual School to approximately 750 students
  • Provided nearly 100 mobile internet hotspots to families as part of the 1Million Project; Thank you Penn Manor Education Foundation for funding the hotspots!

During the three-month period of August, October, and November, staff tech support tickets rose by a massive 118% over the same period in 2019. I want to give a special shout out to every member of the technology and data services team. Without question, 2020 demanded 200% effort for months on end. Thank you Alex, Andrea, Bria, Brielle, Chad, Diana, Gretchen, Kyle, Jarrod, Judy, Lisa, Nate, Nick J., Nick M., Shelby, Stephanie—and our chief student technology apprentice, Max. I’m honored to work alongside all of you during a historic year!