Merced's El Capitan High a state-of-the-art school

Not only is El Capitan High School a brand-new campus, its students also are pioneers in new learning practices being conducted exclusively online. There are no more lockers or textbooks at the north Merced school that’s home to 750 freshmen and sophomores.

While students were encouraged to bring their own computers, 85 percent of the students were issued a Google Chromebook. It’s a mix between a laptop and a tablet.

Students log into the system with their Google accounts. Then they create documents or files, and create and share presentations, calendars and e-mail, principal Anthony Johnson explained. The communication between students, teachers and staff has become seamless.

“It’s really neat; students can’t lose their homework. It’s always there and teachers have access to it,” Johnson said. “I’m extremely proud of the way it’s going. Our students are learning at a high level. We couldn’t do it without strong teacher leadership. We have some of the most amazing teacher leaders I’ve ever had the privilege to work with.”

Associate Principal Eli Gong said students are learning more than they did with textbooks. With texts they could find facts but now they are able to go deeper and discover why something happened.

“Students are creating answers, not just looking them up,” Gong said. “Teachers create their lessons using best practices and take it to the next level. It will be exciting to see these freshmen as seniors when they have been exposed to this environment for four years.”

Gong said a group of students can work on a project. The document turns different colors as each student contributes to the effort. Students can chat with each other while working on the project file and also communicate with the teacher during the process.

Johnson said during the first two to three weeks of school, 10 to 15 percent of the students weren’t up to speed as far as computer usage. But once they got used to the program, they took off with it.

Going back to the old way just wouldn’t work, Johnson said.

“If we asked students to go back to textbooks, we would have a mutiny on our hands,” Johnson said. “A vast majority are saying how they enjoy learning. I’m excited to see the types of students we will be able to create and send into society. I’m very encouraged with the learning experience.”

Bobby Johnson teaches Algebra 1 and California high school exit examination math. He said computer-based learning is a sign of the times and the minute a textbook is published, it’s out of date. Now there is a lot more involvement with students engaged in their classes.

“They’ve got an encyclopedia of the world at their fingertips,” Johnson said. “They get immediate feedback and it’s good for me and them. I love it and the kids are excited about it. It’s been great.”

Johnson said with certain math programs, if a student answers a question wrong he or she will be directed to a series of tutorials and therefore will master the subject. Students also can work at their own pace and are considerably more productive.

Principal Johnson said use of the technology has become second nature. The real challenge is teaching students how to create and learn with technology. For example, in geography there is a unit on historical diseases and groups of students have three days to create a video set in time, exploring something such as the black plague that devastated Europe in the 14th century.

Gong is encouraged by what he sees.

“The whole school culture is amazing,” Gong said. “Students have bought into concepts. There has only been one semester, but already it has caught a flow. The flow is there.”

English teacher Tina Spurlock believes the transition to computer learning is going extremely well.

“There is something special about El Capitan,” Spurlock said. “The kids are catching on. I’m no longer the person with all the answers. Students are encouraged to be critical thinkers.”

Spurlock also is encouraged by the collaboration among the school’s 36 teachers.

“There is a camaraderie with the staff that’s something I’ve never experienced before as a teacher,” Spurlock said. “We (teachers) have become an extended family. We collaborate every single day and that is huge. We create lasting relationships.”

Gong praised Johnson for working with El Capitan teachers all last year and during the summer to immerse them in the technology part of the new educational program.

Johnson said so far nearly 100 teachers and administrators from Modesto, Sonora, Fresno and local schools have come to see the El Capitan High School technology infrastructure and more are coming in February and April. Teachers from Cruickshank and Hoover middle schools in Merced also have toured the El Capitan campus and shared teaching techniques.