By Teachers, For Teachers
May 29--College Park Elementary had a wonderful computer lab, but students rarely went inside.
The school didn't have anyone with the time or expertise to keep it running smoothly -- so when something got out of whack, it stayed that way.
"We had a Cadillac sitting here," said Principal Diana Hallock. "But with no one to drive it and no one to repair it, we couldn't use it."
That all changed two and a half years ago when Hallock met Gifford Calenda, a parent volunteer who had just retired after a long career in Silicon Valley. She quickly realized he possessed unique talents, and the school found a grant to hire him full-time.
Calenda, 60, is now the school's technical consultant. Other titles include "miracle worker" and "every teacher's best friend." The soft-spoken man in jeans and orange Crocs is quite possibly the most overqualified school computer lab instructor in the United States.
Mr. Gifford, as students call him, spent about a dozen years at Apple during two tours, most recently as director of software development for professional applications. He was in charge of the Macintosh operating system two decades ago in his first stint with the company, so maintaining a roomful of iMacs at this K-5 school in San Mateo is hardly a challenge.
Calenda would run the lab for free, but being an employee gives him the authority he needs to do it properly. He regards his new role as a way to give back to the community while pursuing a newfound passion for improving schools through technology.
"As class sizes go up and funding goes down, we have to figure out creative ways to enhance education," said Calenda, whose 8-year-old son, Lucas, is a second-grader at the Mandarin-immersion school. "Computer-assisted learning is a good way to do that."
Calenda runs about 30 Mandarin, English and math labs a week using a variety of software he has discovered as well as before- and after-school enrichment exercises in math, piano and computer programming.
The computer lessons are customized to each student's ability, preventing fast learners from getting bored and allowing slower learners to catch up.
"He has opened our eyes to the possibilities of what computers can do," said Hallock, who has helped usher in a renaissance at the school, where Academic Performance Index scores have increased from 496 to 825 over the past 10 years. "He can have 25 kids in the lab, but they might be on 25 different lessons or 25 different levels."
Efficiency is central to the operation. Calenda's goal is to get as many as two dozen students in their seats, logged in and working within four minutes. Teachers send half their classes to his labs at a time, which enables them to instruct the remaining students in small groups.
But his contributions to the school don't stop there. When someone has a problem with a printer, he fixes it. When the school got iPads for its teachers, he provided training. He uses his connections and know-how -- not to mention persistence -- to obtain free software and hardware. He even created a program to organize the class schedules for all the rooms in the school.
Now he wants to help other schools in the San Mateo-Foster City School District follow College Park's example. Calenda intends to upload everything he's learned -- including recommendations on free software -- to the Internet this summer. Links will become available on the school's website at http://college park.smfc.k12.ca.us.
"We're going to create a destination and showcase, and let people come to it as they have the ability," Calenda said.
At College Park, Hallock has already begun to worry about life after Mr. Gifford. Calenda plans to stay at least until his son moves on to middle school, by which time he will have trained a successor or created a system that perpetuates itself in his absence.
Hallock joked that she has a fallback plan.
"I intend to flunk his son about four times, so I can keep him forever," she said with a laugh.
Contact Aaron Kinney at 650-348-4357. Follow him at Twitter.com/kinneytimes.