iPads help students make the grade at St. Gabriel School

A small West Shore elementary school this year leaped into a new dimension of education by instituting iPad learning in every classroom, a feat unmatched by any public or private elementary school in Milford.

Every Saint Gabriel School student from kindergarten through eighth grade is using an iPad for in-class lessons and instant educational interaction with teachers and other classmates via Smart Boards linked to Apple TVs.

“It's a whole new way of learning,” said Father Maurice Maroney, pastor of Saint Gabriel Church, whose pastoral ministry includes the private Catholic elementary school on Tudor Road. “It has to be about the future for these children. We've made this a high-tech school, and I love it.”

With a 7:1 student-to-teacher ratio, Saint Gabriel School “always prepares our students well,” said Principal Gail Kingston, Ed.D. “Our goal is to give students the very best Catholic education regardless of ability or religious affiliation, and to give them the tools to be successful. Father Maroney has been so supportive of our move to iPad learning.”

The pastor isn't alone in loving the new iPad environment. Teachers and students alike eagerly tout the benefits of the new technology.

As eighth grader Lisa Hanania said, “The iPads have taken education to a whole new level.”

Reaching that level happened relatively quickly at Saint Gabriel School, since steps to implement iPad learning began just last year, according to Dr. Kingston. The Internet infrastructure in the 49-year-old building needed upgrading to accommodate increased use. Dr. Kingston said the WIFI work was done over the summer by a parent with particular expertise in that area, as an “in kind” contribution to the school.

At the same time, administrators revised the enrollment contracts to require parents or guardians to equip every student with an iPad. To offset that additional family expense, administrators didn't increase tuition this year. Grant funding bought iPads for teachers without them; professional development was shifted toward iPad learning. And to alleviate concern that teachers might feel overwhelmed by the number of available apps, Dr. Kingston asked each to select three core apps for the subjects they teach.

Cathy Collins, a longtime Saint Gabriel School teacher, is among the iPad classrooms' most enthusiastic cheerleaders. She disagreed with the idea that iPads distract students, noting that only one window — the educational one — is open at a time.

“With the iPad/Smartboard combination, we can FaceTime absent students so they can participate in the class discussion,” Collins said. “And with students able to send class work from their desks directly to the Smart Board, the 'ah-ha!' moment can be shared by everyone. For teachers, iPad learning also simplifies the collection of assignments — the 'the dog ate my homework' excuse is gone.”

And what do students like about iPad learning?

“I like to Airdrop assignments to my teacher,” eighth-grader Beyontáy Hatchett said, referring to the app that enables users, within a 10-meter radius, to transfer files without using e-mail or mass-storage servers.

Some students said iPads made research easier. Others said the iPad made learning more fun. One student likes QR codes, which are a type of bar code, for difficult vocabulary, using the iPad to photograph the QR code so she can repeat and practice words at home. A few students considered math a little harder with the iPad; most liked the fact that instead of lugging books home for reading assignments, they can take iPad pictures of the assigned pages to read at home. The books can stay in school.

Billy Brady had another perspective: “Unified notes on my iPad make it easier to organize my stuff, and easier to find notes for class.” Dr. Kingston asked all families to purchase one app, Notability, to establish the unified notes program school-wide. Families then were reimbursed $2.99 for the cost of the app.

Dr. Kingston has her own favorite parts of iPad learning.

“I've seen students who can't wait to show a parent or guardian their iPad with what they did today. I think it also helps the shy students to participate in class. And, with the flexibility of our site-based management, we can immediately differentiate instruction for our special education students. We accommodate special needs students very well here.”

Ann Valus, another veteran Saint Gabriel School teacher, noted that traditional books, writing and the arts co-exist nicely with the technology in place today. Valus gestured toward a student kneeling in the hallway, who was drawing a full-size school door decoration freehand from the iPad image beside her.

Valus thinks iPad learning at Saint Gabriel School will prepare students well for high school, and beyond.

“A good teacher is a good teacher, and we have good teachers here,” Dr. Kingston said. “Research shows that children's brains are wired differently, and we use the iPad as another tool to help our students be successful.”