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How are districts using Smart School money for tech?

How are districts using Smart School money for tech?

Some buy laptops, some security cameras
How are districts using Smart School money for tech?
Draper Middle School students make a slideshow with their Chromebooks. Sarah Strauss is seen through the center.
Photographer: MARC SCHULTZ

The routines in 24-year teaching veteran Kim Coelho’s Draper Middle School class may never be the same.

“Traditionally, kids would come in and write in a journal. Now they log into Google and their journal entry is waiting for them – the question is right there,” said Coelho, a Mohonasen sixth-grade social studies and English teacher.

“You see the journals in the crate over there?” she said pointing to stack of multi-colored notebooks stacked in the back of the room. “They stay there.” Instead, each of her 26 students during a class last week had a laptop on their desk.

She asked the students to pull out their earbuds so they could listen to a short video about ancient Rome. Some of the kids looked around; oops, they forgot their earbuds.

“That’s a new little problem,” she said. “Kids used to forget pencils, now they forget earbuds.”

Working from Google classroom, Coelho can track student responses on daily journal entries or small quizzes as they come in. She can submit answers for multiple choice or true and false questions and the program will automatically grade students' answers. On writing assignments, Coelho can offer feedback directly into a student’s essay, even communicating with the student in real-time – digitally.

Teachers, who are driving how the Chromebooks are used in their classrooms, can develop assignments together, making changes or offering revisions directly into a shared document. But it’s about what the technology does for the students, Coelho said, adding that the students will often find ways to use programs she could never figure out on her own.

“There’s like a classroom and all the work we can just click on this and go to an assignment,” said 11-year-old Hayden Goldstein as he showed off his Chromebook. “We get to use computers in school; it’s more fun than just using a book.”

Using nearly $1.4 million of its over-$1.7 million Smart School state technology allocation, Mohonasen last month rolled out the Chromebooks to every sixth-grade student and Chromebook carts to be shared among classes in other grades – 750 Chromebooks in all. The spending included small upgrades to the district network, purchase of a new phone system and other classroom technology.

Every school district in the state gets a cut of the $2 billion state bonds approved by voters in 2014 to enhance technology in schools. Winning state approval for its Smart Schools spending plan in June, Mohonasen is among the earliest districts to move forward with the months-long process of seeking public input and getting school board approval for a spending plan before submitting it to the state. A committee of state officials meets every few months to approve the plans. Their first round of purchases have gotten into the classrooms over the past few months and they plan to submit for state reimbursements this spring.

But school district leaders throughout the Capital Region are not of one mind of how to best spend the Smart School money. While some districts are using the money to jumpstart major laptop initiatives – moving toward one computer for every student – others are shoring up network infrastructure and expanding high-tech school security. The Ballston Spa school district, one of the few districts in the region planning to move forward with at least some computer-based testing this spring, hasn’t advanced any plan yet.  

Of course, different districts have different needs and some have more developed technology infrastructure than others. But the different approaches to spending the Smart School dollars may represent different answers to a basic question: Is it smart for schools to use a one-time infusion of state cash to purchase technology with a lifespan as short as four or five years?

Niskayuna Superintendent Cosimo Tanogrra Jr. said he doesn’t think it’s appropriate to spend bond dollars on products that will be obsolete in a shorter timeframe than the debt will be paid off. That’s why the district doesn’t plan to use its Smart Schools money on student and classroom devices that would ultimately need to be replaced using general fund dollars.

“I do feel an obligation to be not only a steward of the local taxpayer dollars but any of the taxpayer dollars that come into the district,” Tangorra said.

Niskayuna’s initial plan uses nearly $490,000 – one third of its $1.49 million allotment – to replace over 200 aging surveillance cameras throughout the district and improve its digital video archiving capabilities. Tangorra said he hopes to have a plan in place for the next phase of Smart Schools spending in the next two months – a plan that will be focused on improving the district’s network infrastructure.

Fonda-Fultonville technology director Jarrod Baker said the rural district is focused on replacing old cabling at the high school and replacing and expanding the number of internet access points. With its inital $1.1 million Smart School spending, the district can replace all of its current 44 access points, and add 56 new ones, putting a wireless access point in every other classroom. The cabling work lays the foundation for the district to eventually add access points in every classroom, Baker said. By strengthening the basic network infrastructure, Baker said, the district will be positioned to roll out an expansion of student devices.

“As we look to the future and student devices and teacher devices, those things should come from the regular budget and regular funds,” Baker said. “It’s not a question of it (there will be more devices), it’s a question of when. The density of device will require more thorough wireless coverage.”

But nearby districts – such as Mohonasen, Schalmont, Burnt Hills-Ballston Lake – aren’t afraid to use the Smart Schools money to plow forward with big investments in classroom technology, including hundreds of Chromebook laptops for students, iPads and interactive whiteboards.

Officials in those districts say they are planning to transition the costs of subsequent replacement of those devices – which will quickly become the baseline expectation for students and parents – to general funds. They also point out that some future technology purchases will still be partially covered by different state aid formulas.

While Schalmont has moved further toward a one-to-one student-computer ratio than nearly any other district in the region, it also faces a challenging budget picture this year and officials expect to face budget holes in coming years as well. The district started a sixth-grade digital literacy class and has Chromebooks in the hands of nearly every middle-schooler. Just the other week, the school board approved the purchase of a digital social studies textbook for sixth-graders. The district thinks it can use the Smart Schools money to deliver laptops to nearly all of its students in middle and high school grades.   

Schalmont Superintendent Carol Pallas said the district plans to prioritize its technology investments in coming years, even as it considers cuts in this year’s budget to teacher aides, out-of-district special education placements, athletic travel and field trips.   

“I don’t believe that we will be able to say never mind, we won’t have such things,” Pallas said of the student laptops and other technology. “Teaching kids to be digitally literate is a real priority. We know this is the right thing to do for kids and we will try our best to maintain and sustain it in the budget.”

Of Capital Region district’s that have submitted spending plans, some have also taken a balanced approach. While Saratoga Springs plans to spend nearly $2 million on classroom technology, the district is also planning to spend nearly $500,000 on its wireless connections.

To Mohonasen, the state funding will serve to jumpstart its broader goal of getting more technology into the classroom, district Finance Director Chris Ruberti said. Over time the district will plan for replacing computers from the general fund.

 “Smart Schools can be an infusion that gets the initiative up and running,” Ruberti said. “We then have a multi-year plan to wean off of Smart Schools [funding].”

The district’s goal is for every student in sixth through 12th grades to have his or her own Chromebook – a low-priced Google-powered laptop – that would be used in class and at home. Using its first batch of Smart Schools money, the district got a computer for all of its sixth-graders. Beginning in the fall, it will do the same for two grades each year until all of its middle and high school students have computers by the school year that starts in 2020. At that point, the district will have to replace about 400 to 450 laptops each year, which will partially be offset using the district’s BOCES reimbursement rate from the state – paying for about two-thirds of those certain technology purchases. He pointed out that with the one-to-one computers for students, the district won’t have to replace desktops at the same level it has in the past.

“There’s also some costs you are avoiding,” Ruberti said.

Starting in kindergarten

Meanwhile, even Mohonasen kindergartners get a daily dollop of technology. Every classroom at Bradt Primary School, the district’s kindergarten-through-second-grade school, has an interactive whiteboard that teachers use for hands-on math lessons, animated videos and book read-alouds.  

“We have conversations about reliable sources and being responsible on the computer,” Bradt Principal Leslie Smith said. “Kids are so curious at this age and hopefully we see it continue; technology can be that bridge to carry that curiosity forward.”

In Jessica Filarecki’s kindergarten class on Thursday, math time was spent with the interactive white board. Each student had a work mat at their desk with a series of simple subtraction problems and red felt counters to work out each problem. On the white board, Filarecki called on different students to work out the problem. With the touch and swipe of a pen, the students can make big red dots appear and disappear.

“There were four students on the stage and one walked away. How many are left?” Filarecki asked. One of the students walked up to the board, where a previous student had placed four digital counters and swiped one away. Four minus one equals three.

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