Public high schools struggle to pay for technology

News-DemocratNovember 2, 2013 

Freeburg Community High School is the first public high school in St. Clair or Madison counties to launch a one-to-one computer initiative -- a plan to have a computer in the hands of every student.

Freeburg School District 77 provided a Samsung Google Chromebook to each of its 620 students.

"I thought it would give kids access to resources that, without it, they wouldn't have because of access to the Internet," said Andrew Lehman, superintendent of Freeburg District 77. "It allows kids to be more flexible in learning, in terms of when they access materials and how."

District 77 acquired the Chromebooks through a lease agreement, at a cost of $90 per student per year, for three years. The lease agreement is with a North Carolina company for about $183,000. To help offset the cost, Lehman said the district increased the registration fee for students by $25 per school year -- from $65 to $90.

School districts with larger public high schools, such as Belleville East and West and East St. Louis Senior High, have the challenge of coming up with the money to provide electronic devices to thousands of students.

Districts with a large percentage of low-income students, such as East St. Louis School District 189, face another hurdle. They don't have the option of increasing student registration fees, the way Freeburg did. In fact, East St. Louis doesn't charge its students any fees to attend school.

School districts also need to find money for infrastructure upgrades to support an influx of computers and train teachers to be proficient with the new technology.

Belleville School District 201 leaders are working toward putting more technology in the hands of students. The school board recently approved a $239,000 line of credit with the Bank of Belleville for technology upgrades throughout the district.

Assistant Superintendent Brian Mentzer said technology will be upgraded during the next two to three years. The district has up to $239,000 to spend on the project. The district will use lease levy money -- a portion of local property taxes -- to pay off the loan, according to Mentzer.

This year, the district plans to upgrade its computer servers and start trial runs of some individual electronic devices for both students and teachers. The technology upgrade schedule includes updating the equipment in computer labs at both Belleville West and East at a cost of $88,328, and about $100,000 for 371 Samsung Google Chromebook devices -- 161 for Belleville West and 210 for Belleville East.

District 201 officials aren't convinced one device for all students is the way to go.

"We think there needs to be access to a lot of technology that's just as diverse as the courses that we teach," Superintendent Jeff Dosier said.

"Every department, every kid, their interest is different," said Mentzer, the assistant superintendent. "A one-size-fits-all approach is probably not in our district's best interest at this point."

District 201 has 750 computers available to the 2,500 students at Belleville East, according to instructional technologist Joe Nesbit, which means roughly one computer for every three students. These computers are not assigned to individual students and are available in computer labs and classrooms throughout the school. Nesbit said Belleville West has a similar computer-to-student ratio.

East St. Louis School District 189 also is working to increase the number of computers available to its 1,482 students at East St. Louis Senior High School. Information technology director Abe Loveless said the school's main campus and its Career and Technical Education building have 422 computers/tablets available for student use.

Loveless said the district plans to set up three more student computer labs -- two in the library and one in the east wing of the high school -- with 32 computers in each.

Once the three new computer labs are up and running, East St. Louis Senior High will have roughly one computer for every three students.

Mascoutah High School doesn't have a one-to-one computer initiative. However, it does have a large number of computers available to its 1,035 students. Mascoutah School District 19 director of technology Debra Parkinson said about 850 computers are available to students at the high school, which has 20 computer labs and up to five computers in every classroom. That equates to roughly five computers for every six students.

"Our district strives to provide technology tools to support daily student learning," Parkinson said.

One-to-one in action

Students in Julie Klazynski's Algebra 2 class at Freeburg High recently used their Chromebooks to graph answers to word problems. The freshmen and sophomores worked in small groups to solve the problems and graph their solutions using the free website desmos.com.

Assistant Principal Kara Harris praised the netbooks for bringing students together and allowing them to collaborate on everyday work and larger projects. "We make sure they work with each other and communicate," she said.

Students in Klazynski's class compared graphs displayed on their netbook screens by holding them side-by-side to ensure they had the same answers.

Sophomore Natalie Huskey, 16, of Freeburg, said she enjoys using the Chromebooks. "They are easier. You don't have to go to the computer lab anymore," she said. "It's more efficient."

She also likes that everything she needs is on the device. "You don't have to worry about losing papers," Natalie said. "It's almost impossible to lose stuff."

Sophomore Megan Schaller, 15, of Freeburg, said the Chromebooks, which students are permitted to take home, make homework a lot easier. "It's helped me doing homework," she said. "If I don't know something, I can look it up (on the Internet)."

Social science teacher Julie Tedford had students in her consumer economics class use the Chromebooks to investigate stocks and build a portfolio online using Google Finance -- www.google.com/finance.

"It gives them an idea of how they might invest in the future," Tedford said.

Students were given $50,000 to invest how they saw fit, and Tedford said they would track their portfolio online to see how well it performed over a short window of time. Occasionally, to get her students' attention, Tedford asked them to "put the lids (tops) down" on their netbooks.

With the use of Chromebooks, Freeburg High School Principal Greg Frerking said, instruction can become "more student-centered" and "project-based."

"It raises the level of engagement for kids," he said.

There is a learning curve for veteran teachers when it comes to technology. Tedford said this year feels like her first year of teaching all over again. However, she appreciates Freeburg High taking "a leap" and getting technology in the hands of every student.

To protect the district's investment in the Chromebooks, Lehman said students had the option to buy third-party insurance for $31 per year. He said a "vast majority" of students bought the insurance, which fully covers the cost of stolen computers and accidental damages.

If a student does not have insurance, the student and his or her family are responsible for repairs or replacement of the Chromebook, according to Lehman.

Bring your own device

District 201 is fine-tuning its bring-your-own-device policy, which is expected to go before the school board for approval early next year. "Our biggest concern with allowing that is the use of the outside networks," said Dosier, the superintendent.

Belleville East Principal Stephanie Posey said teachers at East "do some cool things with technology," in particular using applications on students' smart-phones.

At Belleville East and West high schools, students are permitted to use their phones at certain times throughout the school day and when teachers give them permission, according to Posey.

East social studies teacher Keith Padgett said he sometimes has students use a phone app called Puppet Pals to create characters and craft a play. "Students end up making the lesson themselves. It's very effective," he said. "To me, technology helps bring history alive to kids in more ways than used to be possible."

East St. Louis District 189 Assistant Superintendent Sue McGown said the district is exploring the option of allowing students to use smart-phones at the high school. "We are always looking at ways to utilize technology in the classroom," she said.

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