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Technology and teachers change inner-city school

By Lesa Jansen, CNN
  • The White House will unveil grants for teaching breakthroughs involving technology
  • 80% to 90% of TechBoston's students are first generation college applicants
  • President Barack Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan will be at the school
  • An average of 95% of the students at TechBoston are accepted into college

(CNN) -- Like many schools in heavily urban areas, there are metal detectors, the neighborhood is poorer than many and 90% of the students qualify for free or subsidized lunches.

But there's a real difference at TechBoston Academy in the Dorchester neighborhood of Boston. At this school, 95% of the students are routinely accepted into college.

Headmaster Mary Skipper has overseen this pilot model public school since it opened in 2002 as a partnership between the public school system, private business and philanthropists.

"It's a total team effort," Skipper told CNN. "It starts with having quality teachers who are committed and hard-working."

And those metal detectors, Skipper sees them as a symbol and a metaphor.

They "keep the street in the street and the school in the school," she said. The simple act of walking through the metal detectors each day helps students "forget all that outside stuff for that moment of time."

"When you're in here, you're here to succeed."

And success has come to this small experimental school.

President Barack Obama along with Melinda Gates, co-chair of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and Education Secretary Arne Duncan will tour TechBoston Academy on Tuesday. The president will showcase the school's success story and discuss the shared responsibility of investing in education to win the future.

"There is no better economic policy than one that produces more graduates," Obama says in prepared remarks for a speech he will give to TechBoston students and teachers. "That's why reforming education is the responsibility of every American -- every parent, every teacher, every business leader, every public official, and every student."

TechBoston Academy opened with 75 students and a $400,000 grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, as well as support from other private and philanthropic organizations. Today enrollment is more than 800 students in 6th through 12th grades.

Its mission is to better educate kids using technology as an integral part of that education. Every student enrolling at TechBoston receives his or her own laptop. Forget chalkboards, each classroom has its own SMART board, a high tech, interactive white board.

Technology giants like Microsoft, Apple, Dell and Cisco are benefactors. But Skipper, the headmaster, insists the success of the partnership is a result of much more than material donations.

"It's more than pulling up trucks and dropping things off," according to Skipper, who says it's the continuing relationship the companies pursue with the school that makes the difference.

For instance, SMART boards are excellent tools in the classroom, but when companies work to develop teachers' skills in learning new and different ways to use those boards, it makes the technology all the more enriching.

Another way the corporate partners help students is by opening job-shadow opportunities to them.

"They go out and see what's possible with a degree ... what doors will open for me," according to Skipper, who says putting her students in the workplace alongside engineers, scientists or technicians -- many of whom come from similar impoverished backgrounds -- is invaluable.

Eighty to 90% of TechBoston's students are first-generation college applicants.

The White House will announce a new program on Tuesday with $90 million in competitive grants for educators who create dramatic breakthroughs using technology for teaching and learning.

Duncan said in a conference call with reporters on Monday that the program is part of a larger plan to remake the Department of Education into a "department with a laser-like focus on innovation."

"Technology has transformed how folks do business. It's transformed how folks interact socially," said Duncan. "It's led to literally, you know, huge, revolutionary changes in places like Egypt. But technology frankly hasn't had that kind of impact on the education space yet."

"We want to invest in that next generation of tools that could help us get the much better student outcomes for ideally a fraction of the time and a fraction of the cost," Duncan added.

At TechBoston Academy, that vision has become reality, and Skipper sees the cycle of failure breaking.

Former students are now back at the school -- this time as teaching aides -- as they pursue their education degrees.

The headmaster proudly confided that she asked them why they had chosen teaching.

"They told me, 'because education changed my life,'" she said.

CNN's Sally Holland contributed to this report