Just across the river from the nation's capital, Arlington County, Virginia, is a small but densely populated suburban community, whose public schools enroll more than 18,000 students from 127 countries, who speak more than 100 languages.
About one-third of the students come from families poor enough to qualify for free or reduced-price school lunches, yet Arlington is prosperous enough to have just spent around $95 million to build a state-of-the-art high school. It replaced an aging facility whose alumni include Nobel Prize-winning physicist Robert Richardson and Hollywood stars including Warren Beatty.
To see how technology is being woven into American public education these days, VOA science reporter Art Chimes paid a visit to the new Washington-Lee High School.
It's not surprising to see a lot of computers here, but what is unexpected is how the iconic chalkboard has been replaced in every classroom by a high-tech, multi-purpose display device.
"The Smart Board is an interactive whiteboard that allows you to control your computer by being up at that board and touching it," says technology coordinator Sandy Munnell. "It is a splendid way for a teacher to share a single computer with a whole class of kids."
It takes a while for her to explain the various capabilities of the Smart Board because it can do a lot. It looks like a plain white panel on the wall. But it's actually a touch-sensitive surface with a video projector sticking out of a stubby arm at the top.
It can show the morning announcements beamed from the school's small television studio. You can surf the World Wide Web, and using special electronic markers you can circle part of a web page to highlight it. Those markers work like chalk on a blackboard, too, with the added plus of handwriting recognition software.
Teacher Jason Brodowski uses the Smart Board to help his biology students learn how to use a microscope.
"By simply having it connected to the digital camera, I can bring it up onto Smart Board, where the whole class can see everything that I am seeing. And when I finally get the image [in focus], they go, like, Oh! I know what you're talking about. And then they can go back to their microscopes and actually check it up themselves. So that's a lot of fun."
The kids like the Smart Boards, too. But not all teachers are equally comfortable with them, says student Frances Roberts-Gregory. "The teachers have to get used to it, like some teachers are very adept at using them. Other teachers are like, what am I doing?"
The school has almost 600 computers for student use — more than one for every three students. There are computer labs throughout the building, and computer workstations coexist with books in the spacious and cheerful library.
The school subscribes to online reference materials that are continually updated, which students can access out of school, too.
There's a lot of valuable material on the Internet, but also lots of web content that's not appropriate for teenagers. So the school has software to block websites that feature, for example, pornography. But librarian Lynette Constantinides says Arlington's incredibly diverse student body makes it difficult to protect the youngsters.
"You can get a kid who lands here from Mongolia — yes, we have a significant little Mongolian population here in Arlington — or the Middle East, and we can walk behind them and they're on the computer looking at websites in their native language that we can't even tell what they're doing," she says. "And filtering doesn't work terribly well even in English."
The library stays open for a couple of hours after classes end, and Sahand Minaie, a student whose parents came to the U.S. from Iran, was at a computer to take advantage of that.
"I'm searching for sheet music for my guitar class," he explains. "I'm trying to find some music for us to play that we're going to play in the Cyber Cafe for a concert in March. We're trying to get music from all over the place, from classical, folk, modern. We're going everywhere."
Downstairs, the Cyber Cafe, with its 28 computers, is comfortable and inviting but, despite the name, does not serve coffee. Technology coordinator Sandy Munnell says it's designed as a place where students — particularly those without computers at home — can hang out.
"The county put a lot of money into this facility to make it as comfortable as all this because we know there's a digital divide and we want to address that," says Sandy Munnell, the technology coordinator. "We have plenty of access to computers in the whole building during their regular instructional time, but it's not the same time as when you can do it in a social atmosphere."
Washington-Lee High School also has some less-obvious high-tech features. Motion sensors turn off lights in empty rooms. There are even carbon dioxide detectors that trigger the ventilation system if classrooms get too stuffy.
Even with all the latest technology, Munnell says they can't guarantee that this new state-of-the-art building won't become obsolete.
"We have to deal with that when the time comes. I mean, we won't keep pace with it, but I think we need to do as much with what we have now. To not have said, we're starting here and we're starting now, I think would [have been] a huge mistake."She added that the high-capacity cabling throughout Washington-Lee High School should be serviceable for years to come, and anyway, future generations of students here are more likely to be using wireless connections.