W-H School District Technology Director Chad Peters has recommended a Chromebook classroom cart-approach over one-to-one devices for elementary grades through the high school.
The review stemmed from a discussion at last month’s School Committee meeting.
Early grades work better with iPads or tablets where the tap-based technology is best for the curriculum needs of kindergarteners and first-graders.
“We are going to look at getting devices for anyone from grade two to grade 12 – and that would include about 3,200 students,” Peters said. There are currently about 1,500 Chromebooks, with about 2,000 more needed to address the need. The next question was between providing a device for every student to take from class to class, or a classroom-based supply. Principals have expressed a preference for classroom sets, which would mean a need for 3,500 total Chromebooks, licenses and carts. They have developed an estimate of $475,000 for that.
With a four-year lease, the cost would be about $160,000 per year, turning the devices back after the four years for new ones. They depreciate too fast to come under the capital budget.
“This would be more like a utility cost for us,” Peters said, but noted there are other pricing options to explore. His department is already working on updating networking infrastructure to support the new devices.
In a few weeks, potentially by the next meeting — which is the annual budget presentation — Peters expects to have firmer numbers on cost.
“We’re moving from the computer labs, which were oh-so 20th Century, to one-to-one devises,” Superintendent of Schools Dr. Ruth Gilbert-Whitner said. “If you go through the district, we look like a technology district, but truth be told, most of it’s been purchased with fundraisers. … People have eaten a lot of spaghetti, they’ve bought a lot of baskets — they’ve done a lot of things — and very little has come out of the operating budgets.”
She credited the Conley Elementary School PAC whose “multiple basket auctions” have raised between $20,000 to $30,000 a year in order to transform a traditional computer lab into a collaboration center where students can use one-to-one devices in a room with changeable furnishings.
“We looked at what we have now and how to get a device in every kid’s hands,” Peters said. “We started with do we go to one-to-one — district-owned or BYOD, bring your own device.”
With district-provided devices, there is more control over security, the district can ensure that every student is working on the same device and supporting technology down to charger cords, and teachers gain the opportunity to develop a curriculum based on each student working off the same of computer. Some textbooks are now available online.
While BYOD saves money up front, the variety of computer brands brought in affect curriculum and can present a challenging IT-support workload for the school. A supply of extra devices would also be needed in case students forget to bring their device.
A have-and-have not disparity between those able to afford the best on the market, compared to those who can only afford a less reliable model — or none at all — is also possible.
“I don’t see how the choice has to be either everybody gets a Chromebook or bring whatever you feel like bringing,” said committee member Kevin Lynam. He asked if parents could be advised what kind of device to buy.
Peters said that was considered.
“The problem is people have all kinds of different devices,” he said, and may not be able or willing to buy recommended models and screen sizes. “The downside is also the ones that don’t remember to bring it in and the stack of … extra devices you need to have seems to be growing and growing.”
Committee member Dan Cullity, who works in IT agreed.
“It’s a headache to troubleshoot [multiple] devices,” Cullity said. “Every operating system and every size is all different. You go from an 11-inch screen to a 13-inch screen — big difference.”
Consideration number two is who would get a device, Peters said. The present approach is to buy Chromebooks piecemeal until a classroom supply is amassed and placing them on a charging cart to ensure they are always there and charged when needed.
The carts are shared between classrooms, especially at the high school where Peters said the arrangement has worked well.
In other business, Gilbert-Whitner reviewed her mid-year goals with members of the School Committee.
“This is probably one of the most challenging first semesters that I’ve ever had,” Gilbert-Whitner said, noting it began with the unexpected departure of Assistant Superintendent Patrick Dillon and followed by work on revising the regional agreement, the start of contract negotiations and the closing of Maquan School.
The latter has dominated work almost daily, she said.
“At this point, with the support of both our towns, we’re going to be able to stick to timelines,” she said.
Work in social-emotional learning continues to be a vital pillar of educational success, according to Gilbert-Whitner, with a wellness committee, W-H WILL and a Security Committee of school principals all working to ensure what is a “number-one priority.”
Developing a financial plan, another important goal, has been one of the more difficult of her tenure as superintendent, she said.
“I think regional schools make a tremendous amount of sense,” Gilbert-Whitner said. “They are cost-effective. You have one superintendent, one business office, but I don’t believe over time that has been supported as well as I would like to see at the state level.”
She also said the two towns, lacking a deep commercial tax base, had become too dependent on state aid.