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As Louisiana imposes academic standards for preschool education, publicly funded child-care centers around the state are beginning to realize they must wire their buildings and buy more computers. Some worry they won’t have the money to comply.

One of the key aspects of the reform effort is a statewide assessment for preschoolers, Teaching Strategies Gold. The program is highly regarded by early childhood researchers and educators, but it will require centers to have wireless Internet connections and computers in every classroom. In New Orleans, about 40 percent of children who receive public assistance for day care are in centers participating in the state’s pilot program.

Technology in preschool
At Wilcox Academy on N. Broad Street, teacher Shelley Collen photographs Akhai Phoenix with an iPhone as the pre-K student changes a sign from red to green on Thursday, November 7, 2013. Documenting development is part of the state’s new early childhood standards that are being implemented in day care centers called Teaching Strategies Gold. (Michael DeMocker, / The Times-Picayune) No reproduction

“I think the state will have to help a lot of centers get where they need to be,” said Pearlie Harris, director of Royal Castle Daycare Center in Mid-City. “It’s going to be a little difficult. We’ll become technology ready, but it’s going to be slow.”

The state education department is giving $265,000 for technology to 29 parishes participating in the pilot program. The state also is paying for Teaching Strategies Gold at each participating center.

Department officials said they don’t yet have a plan for paying these expenses when the pilot program expands to all 64 parishes in 2015. But Superintendent John White said Louisiana will continue to send “every available dollar” towards centers that need technology upgrades.

Digital Divide

Digital education may be the future, but most American schools are far from ready. Our series examines the national effort to close the digital divide by connecting all American schools to high-speed Internet, and why so many schools still lag so far behind.

The Promise: Digital education is supposed to transform public education, but many schools can’t even get online

The Problem: Instead of getting ready for the tech revolution, schools are scaling back

The Solution: How can schools close the technology gap and how much will it cost?

Teaching Strategies Gold lets teachers track developmental milestones on a computer for children up to age 4. Teachers must take photographic evidence or notes of a child showing certain behaviors, such as “demonstrates positive approaches to learning,” and the documentation must be uploaded to an online database that tracks each student’s progress.

Harris worried that Royal Castle might not be able to keep up with costs. Her center was one that was deemed less in need of computers than others, but she said her teachers are still logging student data after hours. Royal Castle has three computers, including one provided through the state’s technology grant, and one digital camera, but 16 teachers to share the resources.

“Teachers have to wait to use a computer, and a lot of them document it at home on their own time,” Harris said. “It would really make a difference if we had a computer or laptop in every classroom.”

Melanie Bronfin, director of the Louisiana Partnership for Children and Families, said a lack of computers makes it harder for teachers to implement the new program. “For these assessments to be done efficiently, you need to have a real comfort level with technology,” Bronfin said. “One of the great challenges of the assessment is the amount of time it takes to be able to use the tools, and these teachers are paid by the hour.”

Royal Castle is actually better equipped than some other centers. In Ponchatoula, the Montessori and Me center will be implementing Teaching Strategies Gold in August, and three months out, it is still conducting pre-school the old-fashioned way, technology-free.

Montessori and Me’s widely spaced, colorful rooms leak soft lullaby music, but it has just one computer with an Internet connection, and that’s in the office. Director Debbie Parker said the thick walls and the distance between each classroom are going to make it difficult to add wireless capability in each classroom. There is no estimate yet for how much this, in addition to the purchase of computers, will cost.

“I’m not saying that all kids should be doing is using computers. But they’re already so surrounded by technology at this point, why not use it to help them learn.” – Pearlie Harris, director of Royal Castle Daycare Center

The center, with 11 others also in Tangipahoa Parish, will split $15,000 from the state in technology grants.

It remains to be seen whether more classroom technology for teachers will translate into more technology for preschoolers. It likely will fall to the individual centers.

At Montessori and Me, Parker says that’s not in the equation. “We don’t push computers that much here because kids need a lot of hands-on activities,” Parker said.

At Royal Castle, Harris said that if she had the money she would consider trying to buy a few tablets for her pre-schoolers to use. But she said she does not want to make computers the center of classroom activity.

“I’m not saying that all kids should be doing is using computers,” she said. “But they’re already so surrounded by technology at this point, why not use it to help them learn.”

Orleans is currently the largest participating parish in the state pilot program. It has received about $23,000 from the state for technology needs. Karri Kerns of Agenda for Children, which is coordinating Orleans’ pilot program, said that aside from devices, the real struggle has been getting center leaders trained on the technology.

“The truth is here we do have some providers who really are not familiar with tech and haven’t used computers at all,” she said. As Orleans expands its pilot from the current 25 centers to 45, she said, more challenges will come.

“What that means for us is it’s a whole new group of programs that won’t have the same level of technology readiness,” Kerns said. “I doubt if the state will come with more funds to purchase for the expansion, so we … will have to be looking for other funds through philanthropy so that the programs can get what they need.”

Bronfin, at the Partnership for Children and Families, doubted Louisiana will meet its goal of having every publicly funded childcare center in the state using Teaching Strategies Gold by 2015.

“Even if you have the wires and even if you’ve got the Internet and the computer and the iPad and you have everything you need, just having teachers (who) are comfortable with using them in a way that’s successful will be hard,” Bronfin said. “Given that all the child-care centers don’t have to be a part of the pilot now, how is the state going to pick up those centers and get them trained and get tech into those centers in time?”

This story was produced by | The Times-Picayunein partnership with The Hechinger Report as part of a series examining the digital divide in American schools. Read more about how technology is changing education.

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