Dunsmuir High board approves trial run of state-of-the-art teaching tool

Tony D'Souza

At last Wednesday’s Dunsmuir High School board meeting, the board members broke from their session to take seats usually occupied by students as they listened to Spanish and Science teacher Steve VanErt describe the merits of the eTAP (Electronic Teaching Assistance Program) teaching tool.

The decision before the board was whether or not to support VanErt’s request that the school purchase rights to the program for a one-year trial run in all of the school’s classrooms.

DHS employees have completed the required Medi-Cal Administrative Activities surveys that have brought the school, according to school administrative assistant and CBO Kim Vardanega, “…about $100,000 a year,” in  discretionary funds. VanErt hoped to convince the board to spend a portion of that money on the program.

The Medi-Cal funds, referred to as ‘MAA,’ were also an issue discussed at the last Siskiyou Union High School District board meeting, where superintendent Mike Matheson explained to his board that some of his schools were not taking full advantage of this state sponsored funding opportunity.

In his computer and projector equipped second floor classroom, VanErt spent half an hour in the role he enjoys best: as a teacher. Equipped with an electronic pen – a recognition system similar to a pointer – VanErt turned his simple white board into an interactive screen on which he scrolled through the eTAP teaching tool’s pages, walked the board through a sample quiz, and streamed video samples from Discovery Education, one of which visually explained nebulas in a short video clip.

Far advanced beyond what any of the board members themselves had experienced in their own student days, the eTAP system as illustrated by VanErt offers students an easy to use interactive way to make difficult subject matters accessible and instant. Part informative television program and part test-taking tutorial, the system offers state of the art learning techniques compatible with the technological world contemporary students experience every day.

“The students get immediate feedback,” VanErt explained after the sample quiz, which displayed incorrect answers seconds after VanErt submitted the quiz to the eTAP website for grading. “Students at home or on vacation can plug in, find out what they missed, and keep up… The lessons are all extremely well laid-out. There are choices for both advanced students and students struggling to keep up. They are written with California standards in mind… It took me 15 to 20 minutes to feel comfortable with it the first time I used it… It’s a powerful tool. I’ve already seen results in my classrooms…. [When I used it in class] the students just sat there and were spellbound.”

When asked by board member Norma Clemens what measures were in place to keep a student from moving ahead of the class using the system, which can be accessed from home computers, VanErt smiled and said, “I don’t know there are any, and I think that’s a wonderful thing… It’s a great opportunity to let those students [who want to move ahead] not be bored. It’s a reward.” VanErt went on to explain that the system is also good for students who aren’t high achievers because it allows them to work at their own pace.

Asked if students can use the system to cheat, VanErt said to the board’s laughter, “I can’t find a way to cheat with it – yet. I always assume and trust that students will find a way to cheat. In some ways, that’s their job… But even if they cheat, it can be turned into a learning opportunity because they will have to read the correct answers.”

The price for a one-year subscription to the program will cost the school $4,000. VanErt also requested $1,000 for two additional projectors to outfit the classrooms currently lacking them, and $2,095 for Discovery Education streaming. He said Dunsmuir High School would be the first high school in Siskiyou County to implement eTAP, which has helped some schools raise their California High School Exit Examination (CAHSEE) pass rates.

In one dramatic example offered by VanErt, a school using the program raised its CAHSEE pass rate from 30% to 46%. The program also prepares students to take the SAT and ACT, among other exams.

Following VanErt’s presentation, the board voted to fund his request. The sole abstention was member Bill Townsend, who had concerns about how much the program would cost to renew each year. Though he did not have that figure at the meeting, VanErt emphasized that his request was for a trial run. “We have to come up with criteria, data based, to help us to decide whether to renew it,” he said.

As the board went into closed session, Foreman explained his support of using MAA money to purchase the eTAP system. “We’ve been collecting MAA funds for quite awhile and decided it was time to give some back to the teachers.”

VanErt took some moments to describe his reaction to the board’s decision to support his eTAP funding request, as well as the state of DHS’s technological systems. “I think [eTAP] is going to be a great benefit. Students have always given great feedback to all the tech we have…We are ahead of the curve [technology-wise]. We’re in the top third of schools in regards to our technology.”

VanErt is a teaching pioneer at DHS in other regards as well. A class he developed called ‘Outside Living’ has allowed students to take advantage of Siskiyou County’s outdoor opportunities while earning school credits.

Under VanErt’s guidance, students have earned credits snowboarding, snowshoeing, river rafting, building trails, and practicing archery. Last year VanErt even took students fly-fishing. “Not too many schools have a supply of rods and reels,” VanErt said. “We do.”

The next meeting of the DHS board will be on Sept. 10 at 7 p.m.