Visual brings advanced technology to Walter Payton College Prep High
first new high school in 20 years is at the leading edge of educational
zero period at Walter Payton College Prep High School in Chicago.
At 7:10 in the morning, with the sun barely up and the doors barely
open, a dozen or so sleepy eyed students are making their way to a
third floor classroom to begin their day. It will be almost an hour
before the rest of the student body arrives, but these early risers
know they are not alone. Across town at Von Steuben High School, the
other half of their Latin language class is settling into their seats.
For the next 45 minutes these two groups of students will share a
teacher and a time period through the newest in videoconferencing
technology. It's all part of the ever-expanding world of distance
learning, and Walter Payton College Prep is the newest player in the
Distance Learning is only the tip of the technology
iceberg at Payton, which is just the second high school the Chicago
Public Schools have built from the ground up in the past 20 years.
Payton is not a magnet school, although the concept is similar. Interested
students have to test in to the math, science and world language college
preparatory curriculum. Out of the thousands that apply, only 200
are taken each year. The school first opened its doors on Chicago's
near north side for a single class of freshmen in the 2000-2001 school
year. This year another freshman class started, as last year's class
became sophomores. The school will be at its 800-student capacity
only on its fourth year after opening, with all levels complete in
2003-2004. This gradual growth gives the staff a chance to get acquainted
with some very new concepts in learning technology.
Smart flooring and smart desks
is one totally connected high school, with LCD projectors, networked
laptops for every student and media retrieval in every classroom. There's
even a state-of-the art recital hall that can broadcast to the whole
school. When Facilities Director Marty McGuire moved over from Kelly
High School to Payton, it was a whole new ball game. "The nice thing
about Walter Payton is that the district was sold on the idea of technology
from the get-go!" says McGuire.
And the "get-go" literally means from the bottom
up. Walking the halls at this school can be like walking on air. The
school put down special easy access flooring throughout the building,
allowing cables and phone lines to be laid during construction and before
the final floorboards were put down. When changes are needed, the flooring
is easily opened up, granting open access to the cables underneath.
Unlike older institutions, no one is going to be punching holes in walls
or tearing up tile to make this school internet ready. This building
was fully wired, from classroom to classroom, from lecture hall to laboratory,
from office to auditorium, before the first student set foot in the
Every desk in the school is a "smart desk" with
dual computer connections, so every classroom is essentially a computer
lab. Laptop computers are available to every student. All a teacher
has to do is write a request for the laptops, and the technology people
deliver them at the appointed hour. Each desk has both a data and electrical
outlet where students can plug the laptops in and connect to the internet,
the teacher's home page or the school intranet instantly. The vision
is that even when the school is at its capacity in 2004/2005, every
one of the projected 800 students will have access to a laptop every
classroom has a ceiling-mounted Mitsubishi LCD projector as well as
a wall screen. The projectors are networked to the school's technology
control center, which McGuire calls the head-end room, via a media retrieval
system. The head-end room houses such an incredible array of sensitive
equipment that the school felt it was better not to have it in the classroom.
"For instance, we have 20 VCRs. Eight of them have cable tuners, so
we can select what channels we want-CNN, PBS, CLTV," explains McGuire.
"The teacher can sit down at his computer and look up a catalogue of
videos that we have on, say, the civil rights movement. Then when he
schedules a video, whether it's on DVD, laserdisc or VHS, he can set
it all up right from his computer." The teacher uses his classroom remote
to turn on his LCD projector and operate any one of the pieces of equipment
in the control room. "We even have an MPEG server, so we can actually
take one video, dump it into our server, and eight different places
around school can watch the video at the same time."
According to United Visual's Bill Mullin, such projection
systems can make a huge impact on the learning process. "The beauty
of these systems is that they are so engaging," says Mullin. "A given
student may or may not have much interest in the lesson at hand, but
presented this way it will get his attention. And that's at least half
the battle." Marty McGuire plans to use the system to show materials
created at the school as well as outside. "A teacher can bring in a
video he knows he might not need for weeks. We would load it on to the
server and when he's ready for it, he just lets us know," says McGuire.
"We can even record a morning class, then allow a substitute to replay
it for the afternoon class when the regular teacher is gone."
of the most exciting features of the technology program is the distance
learning classroom, which gives teachers and students the ability to
study with other classes across the city or even around the world. In
this room as many as 30 students can take part in a question and answer
session with a lecturer from the Art Institute of Chicago, or an Egyptian
Mummy expert at the Field Museum. Eighteen schools in the Chicago public
school system are capable of videoconferencing and can tie their classrooms
together. For example, the Portuguese language teacher may find herself
with six students at one school, five at another and three at still
another, all taking the same class at the same time, via videoconferencing.
Or a handful of students may find themselves learning from a teacher
at a suburban high school, or talking to a research team in the southwest.
Since the transmissions are two-way, they have the ability to interact,
to ask questions and stay involved.
"The videoconferencing system
is far and away the best we can get," says McGuire. That's right down
to the four 50" plasma display monitors mounted on the walls. "What
has been so distracting to students in the past is the jerky camera
movements and sounds of people playing with the microphone. This system
is like nothing else out there."
The cameras and microphones
used for students are touch activated. When a student has something
to say, he just touches a button at his seat, the camera senses the
mic is "live" and turns to him. It's the equivalent of raising his hand.
Teachers can include material
from a nearby document camera or take a signal from a portable camera,
which might be sent to, say, a science lab, for an experiment that can't
be moved to the distance learning classroom. " If a science class wanted
to do a videoconference experiment, we would go down to the lab with
a boom mike and a camera and send the signal back here. Then I send
the remote signal to the their science classroom through their LCD projector."
That, in essence, makes the science lab a videoconferencing classroom
as well, something McGuire hopes to make possible all over the school
crowds are not unusual in the school recital hall, which has seats
for only half the study body. McGuire often sends video from the hall
to other areas of the school. "Mike Ditka has already popped in a
couple of times to talk to the students. When we have a speaker like
him, I can run the signal not only throughout the building but to
other schools, by routing it through the distance learning room. This
way everyone interested can see him." Those lucky enough to get a
seat in the hall can watch the events live and on a 30' by 40' screen
fed by a Sony projector. "I was worried about how small the picture
would be on the screen, but the projector really does a good job filling
up the space," says McGuire.
The school also has a full
time computer lab and three smaller lecture halls, all wired to the
rest of the building. Informational monitors hang from the ceiling
in the entryway, the library, even the lunchroom. When no live signal
is being broadcast, McGuire posts the daily event schedule, special
notices or even the weekend sports highlights. Visitors and students
alike don't have to look far for information.
working from a design by Chicago's Shen Milsom & Wilke, has been the
primary source for all the technology that makes this building so exciting.
McGuire says working with United has been great. "Rich Leonard from
United is a fantastic installer. He really knows his stuff and has been
a pleasure to work with. He's given us equipment training right down
to the wiring!" Mullin says the Chicago Public Schools showed great
foresight when incorporating this myriad of technology into Payton high
School from the start. "It's especially evident in the distance learning
room," says Mullin, "They've really prepared for as many ways to communicate
as you can find out there."
The Payton legacy
The fact that this school
is named after Walter Payton is not forgotten. Time and time again
when all hope seemed lost, Walter would come bursting out of a pack
of opponents, football safely tucked under his arm, and go for those
extra yards. There was as much determination and concentration in
his actions as there was talent. He was simply great at what he did,
on and off the field. The qualities that made Payton such a success
are the same kinds of qualities people at this high school are hoping
to instill in every student that attends their classes. His pictures
adorn the walls, his accomplishments are often a subject of discussion
at school gatherings. But it won't be with a football tucked under
their arms that WPHS graduates tackle the future. Whatever path these
students may take, they will be well equipped with the new century's
technology. All they really have to do is run with it.