Students in Andrea Mastrocco's earth science class sat hunched over their desks Thursday morning, each one with a BlackBerry, an iPhone or even an iPad in hand.
Despite a sign above their heads advising them to turn off their cell phones, the Half Hollow Hills High School West students punched away at tiny keyboards during the lesson.
Mastrocco didn't mind, in fact, she encouraged it.
"Kids need to learn to use technology for more than just games and social media," she said. "They need to be prepared."
In an effort to focus and motivate one particular class that was having trouble, Mastrocco allowed them to take notes on any technology of their choice and it's proved successful. She said the students' grades have improved and they are more engaged in the class.
Mastrocco's technology story is just one of hundreds throughout the school district, said Corinne Carriero, director of instructional technology for the district, and it’s part of the reason Half Hollow Hills was recognized this year for the second time by the Apple Exemplary Program.
The computer company awards the recognition to a school district that serves as an example for others on how to integrate educational technology into instruction.
Carriero said technology is an important part of every subject throughout all 11 buildings in the district. In French classes, students Skype with a classroom in France. In art electives, students produce films and share them on the Internet. And in almost all classrooms, teachers have started posting their lessons and asking students to post their own portfolios on Wikis.
Carriero said the possibilities are endless, as the district gives teachers the freedom and support they need to be creative.
Carriero said the school invests about $1 million a year into technology, which includes the equipment, the infrastructure and support staff.
Teachers take part in extensive professional development, she said, and 240 teachers have school laptops and get additional technology training as part of a growing laptop program.
Carriero said at the core of the district's philosophy is that it's not just about the tools, but about how a teacher uses those tools to enhance learning and create a classroom of "knowledge creators."
"It's about how teachers can differentiate instruction," she said. "It's about getting students to find, share, think, create, analyze and edit. It's 21st century learning."
Connie Long, 16, a student at Half Hollow Hills East, said she incorporated an iPad into her AP Art History class by downloading apps that gave her digital tours of museums like the Modern Museum of Art.
"It's quite amazing," she said. "We do live by the city but it can be hard to get there. This is like having a museum at my fingertips."
Photo caption: Angela Pradhan and Daniella Desabato work on their cell phones during Earth Science class at Half Hollow Hills High School West. (May 5, 2011)