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Schenectady moves forward on plans for over $9M in technology

Schenectady moves forward on plans for over $9M in technology

Region wide districts have been approved for over half of $67 million in tech spending
Schenectady moves forward on plans for over $9M in technology
Mike Sheridan, Oneida Middle School educator, talks about technology available today for students in the Schenectady district.
Photographer: Marc Schultz

SCHENECTADY – Oneida Middle School educator Michael Sheridan has a mouthful of a title: technology integration media specialist. But that’s not what the kids call him.

“They call me librarian,” Sheridan said last week as he led a quick tour of the building’s technological reach.

Sheridan helps lead the school’s efforts to ingrain technology – from a 3-D printer to laptop carts shared among classes – into every class, finding ways to let student interests, and technology, guide research projects and workaday assignments.

“We acknowledge that every kid learns in a different style,” Sheridan said. “Why not offer a way to differentiate assignments, give students a different way of showing their learning?”

The library is outfitted with a green screen for weather forecasts and short films, equipment for students to record podcasts or raps and other songs, and a small 3-D printer capable of converting digital blueprints into physical models. A Cisco teleconferencing system enables classes to communicate directly with students in classes across the country -- across the world -- as well as scientists and other experts. And a schoolwide set of 30 Google glasses lets students virtually explore thousands of sites around the world -- a quick look through the Egyptian pyramids or visit to Paris, for example.

He said the technology and its uses translate to every class and subject.

“Students are engaged, students see the value,” Sheridan said. “This kind of stuff really sells itself.”

While Oneida is one of Schenectady’s most technologically advanced schools, it still lags far behind where the district wants to head -- and where many districts across the region have already reached.

Districts in recent years have plowed forward with so-called one-to-one technology plans, which strive to put a computer in each student's hands. The statewide Smart Schools Bond Act, which supports school technology spending, has accelerated district moves toward greater technology use. But in Schenectady, district officials have yet to spend one penny of its over $9.3 million Smart School allocation.

(The district did submit a plan over two years ago but withdrew it after determining the state approval process would take too long to get technology in soon-to-open middle schools in need of computers. The technology was purchased through the district general fund.)

At Oneida, over 750 students share nine laptop carts -- three for each grade level -- that teachers reserve use of from a master schedule that Sheridan organizes. Each cart has around 30 laptops. Sheridan said the school has roughly one laptop for every two or three students -- about half the access of in schools around the region rolling out new programs that pair each student with a laptop.

“Even though this is a tech-rich building, it’s not tech enough,” said Aaron Bochniak, district director of planning and accountability and a chief organizer of the districtwide technology plan.

When asked if teachers grumbled about not getting access to the laptop carts as frequently as they want, Sheridan offered a diplomatic answer.

“Teachers are starting to see the deeper value of technology, and they want their students to experience that as much as possible,” he said.

At the district’s less-tech-rich buildings, teachers are still struggling to get digital projectors working, and laptop carts are stretched even thinner. At Howe Elementary School, teachers across the building share just three laptop carts, Principal Sue Gorman said. In a kindergarten class on Thursday, the teacher posted a pair of worksheets to a plastic easel; there was little chance all the students could see the sheets.

“We didn’t even have wireless last year,” Gorman said during a tour of the building. She said there is plenty of opportunity to add more technology in elementary schools, including kindergarten classes, starting with a projector. “At least they could see,” Gorman said of getting a projector in the kindergarten class.

Down the hall, in a new wing of the building opened last school year, first and second grade classes were outfitted with digital projectors capable of projecting documents and videos, while also capable of recording and storing notes written on the white board.

“We do everything on our projector now,” said first-grade teacher Kristy Mantei, who works alongside another teacher. “Since we can’t get to every single kid at the same time, we can put it on the board and they can follow along.”

But in a third-grade room, the projector has been installed but is not yet connected and up and running. So teacher Kari Altieri instead has used a document reader that also projects but has more limited capabilities than the projectors, which can work directly from a teacher’s computer. If Altieri wants to project from her computer, she has to unplug it and shift cords around as she gets set up in a different part of the room.

“It takes a little bit of time,” Altieri said of the technology shuffle.

Gorman said there are four classrooms without functioning projectors. But she also said the district was moving in the right direction as it gradually expands what is available to teachers and students in the short term, while laying the groundwork for a larger technology overhaul using the Smart Schools money over time.

“Teachers find it frustrating because they see what we don’t have,” Gorman said of other districts, where technology advances have come sooner. “But the good news is we are headed in the right way.”

Districts spend down state tech money

Across the region, dozens of districts have been approved to start spending down their Smart School allocations. Some districts have been approved to spend all of their allocation.

Out of 35 area districts, state officials have approved a combined $36.1 million in technology spending -- just over half of those districts combined allotments. When submitted but not yet approved spending plans are included, districts have committed to spend around 70 percent of their combined allocation, which tops $66 million.

The majority of the approved spending, about 40 percent, has targeted an expansion of classroom technology; just over 20 percent of the spending is aimed at strengthening schools’ wireless networks and connectivity; and about 11 percent of the spending is going for high-tech security upgrades.

State officials last week approved the latest round of Smart Schools spending, including over $400 million for New York City schools. But a handful of Capital Region schools are still awaiting state approval to move ahead on their submitted spending plans, including Shenendehowa, Broadalbin-Perth, Gloversville, Johnstown, Middleburgh and Cobleskill-Richmondville.

Meanwhile, other districts have held back -- or in Schenectady’s case pulled back an initial spending plan after delays forced officials to use other funds for key technology purchases -- as the state approval process moved haltingly forward.

“We want to get our network a little bit more robust, and it’s taken some time to ramp up,” said David Sander, technology director for Cobleskill-Richmondville schools. The district first submitted a plan to state officials in March 2017 and has been going back and forth since to iron out details since then. “I feel like we should be getting close.”

Balllston Spa, which has moved forward with distributing laptops widely to its students, plans to use its Smart Schools money to update technology as needs arise over the next three to five years, district spokesman Stuart Williams said. Scotia-Glenville also has not yet submitted a plan for state review; district spokesman Bob Hanlon said officials plan to submit a plan sometime in 2019.

In Schenectady, officials this fall completed a district technology plan that will serve as the framework for moving forward with plans to incrementally uses its Smart Schools money, worth over $9.3 million.

Initially the district will use the technology dollars to strengthen its underlying wireless and digital networks, but over time more and more of the money will be earmarked for student devices and other technology for classrooms. The district’s goal is to improve “digital equity,” giving students in all schools access to similar technologies and capabilities, and move toward all students having access to their own computer.

Spring said ultimately the district’s Smart Schools spending may be spread out over multiple submissions in the coming years. But officials are planning to get school board approval for a submission this spring, as early as at a February meeting.

The district has also begun to build the new technologies into its curriculum, designing lesson plans around the types of technology students will have in the coming years.

“We don’t want to leave the notion of technology to chance,” Schenectady Superintendent Larry Spring said. “Which means we have to change the blueprint.”

On paper’

On Thursday, students in Rick DeCarr’s sixth grade ELA class at Oneida sat with laptops at each desk, working on their student portfolios, which every student in the school has through a Google program. The students summarized books they had read recently and many said they preferred the laptops to working on paper.

“Sometimes when you do things on paper, you mess things up and they get lost,” 11-year-old Giovanni Blenman said.

“It’s a lot easier, you can have more fun, you can put pictures on what you’re doing, make it more your own,” 11-year-old Charlie Jackson said.

But at the end of the class, the students had to pack the computers back into the carts. What if they could take them to their lockers and to their other classes -- as students in many other area schools do?

“That would be amazing,” 11-year-old Natalia Brunson said.

“That would be so cool,” 11-year-old Zuriah Guzman agreed with her deskmate.

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