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Technology, renovations shape new school year

September 6, 2013

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Superintendent Christine Johns monitors Lilyana Leslie and Faith Raya as they practice their literacy skills on Apple laptops at Plumbrook Elementary School Sept. 5.

When the bell rang in a new school year for Utica Community Schools students Sept. 3, many encountered new features and technology that are more than just bells and whistles.

Superintendent Christine Johns said the school district has a number of things going on as it faces a new school year. She called the energy level “extremely high” and said the teachers’ classrooms were set up well in advance.

“Building off that energy, we will open school with approximately 29,000 students,” she said. “I think this is going to be a pretty exciting year for students.”

Thanks to a successful $112.5 million bond issue in 2009, Johns said, some schools have received computer upgrades and other renovations. This September, Utica High School students had the chance to experience a new state-of-the-art media center. The high school also had some new flooring and lockers installed, she said.

“Students shared with me that the lockers in their schools weren’t working as well as other lockers,” she said. “This is just a more inviting environment for learning.”

When it comes to academic rigor, Johns said she expects “continuous improvement” from students and faculty. She said the district started its transition into abiding by Common Core State Standards a few years ago, and this fall is another step on that path.

Besides making classes and tests more rigorous, the district is also integrating more digital content into its lessons, officials said.

To help students become globally competitive, Johns said, the schools plan to introduce digital media tools in the classroom, along with age-appropriate instruction on digital citizenship. The district is asking parents to be partners in guiding young people to be responsible on the Internet, she said.

Johns added that elementary students are now using “techbooks” filled with interactive lessons that can help students grasp a subject more clearly.

“In the area of science, students can do virtual experiments,” she said. “Kids can read, but they can also play a video or watch the metamorphosis of a butterfly.”

Even the youngest students are diving into technology. Last year, UCS kindergarteners were introduced to a blended learning program that encourages learning through digital teaching tools and apps on laptops and iPads. This year, the program continues in kindergarten, and it is also opening to first-graders, Johns said.

Joan Blanzy, a kindergarten teacher at Beck Centennial Elementary School, said higher academic scores seem to demonstrate the blended learning program’s positive impact. But she explained that the kids don’t do everything on a computer. They still use paper and pencil to write.

“They still need to get their fine motor skills developed in kindergarten, so that’s still important,” she said.

To find out more about the Utica Community Schools district, visit or call (586) 797-1000.

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