Travis Allen talks about iSchool

Travis Allen uses his iPad to demonstrate his digital learning concept during an open house at Saddle Ridge Elementary and Middle School. (Messenger photo/Matt Ledger)

Walker County’s newest school has amazing features that go far beyond ergonomic desks and hallways large enough for a pickup game of basketball.

Saddle Ridge Elementary and Middle School is the first school in the nation to feature the iSchool Initiative.

The school system has merged onto the modern information highway and embraced the digital age. Hundreds of smartboards have been placed in classrooms. Mobile learning systems with laptop cars and iPad labs are found throughout the system’s 16 schools.

Saddle Ridge is taking the next step in melding technology with education by embracing a mobile learning program conceived in 2009 by a high school student, Travis Allen, from Fayetteville.

Allen is president and founder of iSchools Initiative, a software-based system that may change the philosophy of teaching, not only for the maximum of 680 students at Saddle Ridge, but for all students enrolled in Walker County school system.

“This program will help us reach our mobile learners,” said Michael Tipton, the system’s coordinator of integrated technologies. “We are working with teachers on how to infuse technology into the lessons. We’re asking people to try something new and it will be a bit of a hybrid model for the first year.”

Travis Allen, during his keynote address at the Saddle Ridge open house, praised the school’s cutting-edge technology. “What we’re experiencing here is remarkable,” the 21-year-old Allen said. “I have walked the halls of many schools — hundreds of schools — and I have never seen as impressive a school in my life.”

Looking toward the future

His visionary concept is to enhance student learning by offering a digital experience that children are familiar with and enjoy.

At an age when most teens are trying out for a varsity team or making college visits as a junior, Allen tried to do all of his schoolwork assignments using his first smart phone.

His nearly hour-long talk echoed the contagious enthusiasm of the man who started the digital revolution and created the very products that students will be using, Apple’s iconic founder, Steve Jobs.

Allen’s message, when first voiced in 2009, began as a viral YouTube video of frustration and has since led to numerous opportunities. Among them was a White House visit in 2012 for a U.S. Department of Education summit.

“I quickly noticed a big divide between my educational and my real world experiences,” Allen said. “We have since quickly come a long way, and I am happy to say that his school does not face these challenges.”Each and every Saddle Ridge student will have an iPad mini for classroom ,with third- through eighth-graders being allowed to take their (Otterbox-protected) devices home.

“We are really moving toward a flipped classroom,” Tipton said.

By that, he means the reading and researching of a lesson will be assigned as “homework” on the new tablets and will be followed by assignments, group discussion and quizzes at school.

Allen demonstrated the durability by tossing his iPad to the ground and then standing on it to answer a parent’s question regarding some students propensity of breaking things.

The digital tablets will work seamlessly with the smartboard lessons that teachers use.

Out front, but not alone

Approximately 2,500 schools purchased electronic tablets in 2012, and 1.7 million have been purchased during the first fiscal quarter of this year, Allen said.

Apple recently announced that the Los Angeles Unified School District, the nation’s second largest, is buying $30 million of iPads and intends to provide each of the district’s 640,000 students one of the small tablet computers before the end of this school year.

Whether in southern California or northwestern Georgia, the iPad-equipped student’s classroom experience will be a paradigm shift from traditional public school education.

“A lot of the other schools outside of this area have outdated equipment and outdated resources and I feel they have the best of everything here,” said Jennifer Hicks, mother of a second-grader.

Jennifer’s husband, Keith, added, “We wanted to send (our daughter) here because we knew it would be new equipment and technology and to give her the best chance that you can get.”

Their daughter, Abbey Grace Hicks, in addition to using her parent’s laptop computer has an iPod and a Kindle tablet she frequently uses for games and reading.

Saddle Ridge teachers will integrate a wide variety of apps and programs to enable interactive learning with digital devices, while working toward a “paperless classroom.”“For many of our teachers this is a new concept, but they are so excited about some of the possibilities associated with it,” superintendent Damon Raines said. “I have an iPad and they showed me several things I didn’t know.”

The tech-savvy superintendent said there are lots of little tricks — with more added daily — for those who think they have a firm grasp of the iPad.

New tricks, new culture“It’s a new chance to help set school culture, here if you dream it you can make it happen,” Dr. Jim Barrett said, a Georgia studies teacher (economics, geography history and government). “Using those technologies that are already a part of their lives everyday and making school a place that they want to come to.”

Barrett, who taught at LaFayette Middle School last year, is one of many teachers already utilizing technology in the classroom with such things as digital warm-up quizzes on smart boards.

He said that program allows students to text their answers, while providing him more time to teach instead of correcting papers.

Along with heading his company, Allen is currently a senior at Kennesaw State University and recently revisited his high school alma mater, the same his younger brother now attends.

School leaders there have finally implemented a bring-your-own-technology policy, embracing Allen’s vision.

“He (my brother) has the ability to learn in ways that I would have loved, in ways that I wish I had when I attended school,” Allen said.Though Allen and his iSchool team are currently on a six-month cross-country tour to broaden the initiative’s national reach, he will return to Saddle Ridge in a newly customized mobile technology bus on Sept. 5 to formally launch the program.