Technology changes teaching at WHS


For Woodlake High School, which has been around since 1914, change is nothing new. There have been two former buildings that were destroyed by major fires in 1936 and 1980. 

The campusThe current core complex of buildings dates from 1983 but with a number of new classrooms, nothing that encircles the spiffy clean quad appears antiquated with the exception of the Performing Arts Building and an old gym. 

Thanks to the district’s taxpayers and some skillfully conceived grant funding, there is a new gymnasium that doubles as the school’s “Event Center,” a sparkling swimming pool, new baseball and softball complex, newly renovated football stadium, and all-weather track, with lots more improvements in the works.

Principal is absentBut the most apparent thing missing when the 674 students returned to school last month was the principal. Noticeably absent is Lisa Castillo, Woodlake High’s principal since 2011, who just prior to the start of the new school year decided she wanted to rejoin the Cutler-Orosi School District and took an administrative position there, apparently to be closer to her home. 

“We found out officially on August 3 that Lisa Castillo, the former principal was leaving,” said Drew Sorensen, Woodlake Unified School District superintendent. “One thing I’ve learned over the years is that in education, like any business, change is inevitable and it’s best to embrace it.”   

 A search is on for a new principal with the application period closing this week. Interviews are expected to take place in the next two weeks, and Sorensen said he expects a new principal to be hired by the end of the month.  

‘Where every individual has the power to succeed’— When a new principal is hired, it will be amid some epic changes that are occurring at a school some have called the “little high school that could.”

Dubbed “could” because recently Woodlake High was recognized nationally for academic excellence and for creating a culture where some students become the first in their families to graduate high school, and where the majority of graduates attend college.    

The scholarships and grants awarded to Woodlake students are legendary and the envy at counseling departments throughout the Central Valley. But to implement and understand the changes that are occurring this semester it will take a committed staff and students who are all on the same page.

The 21st century comes to townThat same page may be best described as a virtual page, a Google document that exists somewhere in a cloud. Every student, with a the use of a Google Chromebook or other mobile device like a smartphone, participates via their device and the teacher can observe every question posed and answer given, and there is a digital record of every click.

Rick Rodriguez, who is currently serving as the interim principal until a new one arrives, says from what he’s experienced so far, the technology-based learning has the students involved.

“These kids come to us already familiar with using a mobile device or smartphone so using these Google apps is an effective way of increasing student engagement,” Rodriguez said. “The days when a teacher would give a lecture are over, and now every student has a Google account and all their assignments and progress exists in real time within the context of one learning community or another.”

Sorensen said the wholesale changes are centered on a Common Core learning strategy. Instead of the traditional three R’s now the emphasis is on the four C’s: communication, critical thinking, collaboration, and creativity.

“It’s a breath of fresh air compared to studying for the old standardized tests,” Sorensen said. “Now students take tests online, and they really like it.”

Woodlake’s superintendent has instructed all his teachers to be creative and don’t be afraid to admit a vulnerability. 

“When a student can help a teacher understand something, it can be a powerful learning experience,” Sorensen said.

Sorensen gives a lot of credit to settling on the Google hardware and software to Glen Billington, assistant superintendent. Glen observed other districts in action and recommended the Chromebooks as the best case scenario for Woodlake.

The high school now has 144 Chromebooks that are stacked in three carts and wheeled around to the various classrooms as needed. Sorensen said he’s not convinced that every student must have their own tablet because most of the class work is being done in groups of four.

There are plans however to purchase more of the Google tablets.

“If you only communicate electronically that’s not optimal for learning,” Sorensen said. “But to share within the group and be encouraged to speak up in class, that learning will engage more students and help in solving problems in whatever subject they study.”

Prior to the start of the school year, a consultant provided training sessions for teachers and administrators who used one application or another to learn how it all works. Among the specific applications for teachers to use, Rodriguez said, Google provides apps for record-keeping, making a class website, and forms for tests and assignments.

“The training will be ongoing and, for now, the more technology-savvy teachers will be helping other instructors to learn how to use these tools,” Sorensen said. 

Administrators, teachers, advisorsMike Burchett, the former wrestling coach and math teacher, now assumes a position as learning director. That’s a kinder, gentler way to refer to the assistant principal who deals with the students who get off task.

“I’m happy to be in this office, and here is where I want to do the best job I can do for the students and community of Woodlake,” Burchett said.   

New teachers at the high school this year include three math instructors and one science teacher. Kaitlyn Morgan, who was hired last year as a history teacher, will take over the yearbook and continue as journalism advisor for the school newspaper.

The Woodlake High 2014-2015 school year commenced August 13. Sports — girls’ tennis, cross country, volleyball, football — are well underway, with the Tigers football team meeting its historic arch rivals in Exeter tonight (September 5). Back to School Night is scheduled for Monday, Sept. 15.

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