Digital Divide

What’s the upside to tough, new Common Core tests for schools? Throwing out those decade-old computers

In a hallway at Mildred Harris Elementary School in Bridge City, a student wearing huge headphones sits on the floor, industriously tapping away on a computer tablet. In the classroom behind him, his kindergarten class is continuing its lesson, following along with a teacher using an interactive whiteboard.

Just 10 minutes away, across the Mississippi River in Metairie, a similar group of students at Rudolph Matas Elementary sits in a more conventional setting, at wooden desks with workbooks open.

Though on opposite ends of a spectrum, both campuses are part of the largest public school system in Louisiana, in Jefferson Parish, which educates 47,000 students and which is methodically seeking a broad upgrade of its technology at the same time it is being pressed by the state to come up with more computers, more quickly, for standardized testing. It’s a balancing act, one in which administrators must integrate both long-term goals and near-term demands — with a limited amount of money.

Mason Hooter (L) and Ladymond Gray use Sight Word to play a digital matching game in their kindergarten classroom at Mildred Harris Elementary School in Bridge City on Wednesday, May 15, 2014. (Michael DeMocker, Nola.com / The Times-Picayune) No Reproduction

Mason Hooter (L) and Ladymond Gray use Sight Word to play a digital matching game in their kindergarten classroom at Mildred Harris Elementary School in Bridge City on Wednesday, May 15, 2014. (Michael DeMocker, Nola.com / The Times-Picayune) No Reproduction

In the near term, 47 of Louisiana’s 69 public school systems are considered technologically ready to implement the national Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers test, which will measure the Common Core standards, that is coming in 2015. That means, among other things, that they have a minimum of one computer for every seven students.

Jefferson is not among them. At Matas, for example, with 210 students in grades that eventually must take the exam on computers, there are only 19 computers capable of administering the test. That’s 11 students per computer.

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?

So Jefferson administrators are using the state’s push for technology readiness as a catalyst for comprehensive improvements. They have been looking to upgrade the system’s overall technology for years, but now they are accelerating their efforts.

“The state thinks you need a 7 to 1 ratio for computers. That’s the easy part,” Superintendent James Meza said. “We want to build a digital environment with a master plan for technology. … The state wants to go forward with a very limited vision.”

The last large-scale technology upgrade in Jefferson schools was almost a decade ago, through a Cisco Systems Inc. grant after many schools were damaged during Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Since then, individual teachers and principals also have occasionally cobbled together money to buy small numbers of new computers on an as-needed basis. But as is the case at Matas, a number of schools still operate desktop computers that are older than some of the students who use them.

In November, mindful of the state’s deadline of implementing the computerized exam by May 2015, the Jefferson School Board voted to borrow $50 million via a bond issue. About $30,000 would go towards designing and implementing a system-wide technology plan that would include not only upgrades in computer devices for all schools but also revamping the data structure and Internet speeds across the parish. Meza said he wants to move from having wireless schools to having wireless classrooms. Even at Mildred Harris, one of the system’s more technologically advanced schools, children must sit in the hallway to use their computer tablets because the wireless connection isn’t strong enough inside some classrooms.

While Jefferson is borrowing money up front for technology, Meza said it will be looking for reimbursement for some expenses from the federal e-rate program. Some individual schools, such as Mildred Harris, have received other funding, from a state grant of $1.2 million to buy computers and tablets. They are using these devices to implement a blended learning curriculum.

at Matas Elementary on Thursday, May 1, 2014. Matas Elementary has to find ways prepare for the computerized PARCC assessment test in the 2014-2015 school year. Without enough computers or wifi capabilities, they are referring to this year as "transitional" according to assistant principal Liz Gurtner. "We don't want the technology for the kids to be the blockage for doing well and it takes a few years for them to get prepared." The second grade glass is using Promethean boards, audio assisted reading exercises, and a mix of computers and pencil-based testing to prepare them for the computer testing in 5th grade. (Photo by Julia Kumari Drapkin, Nola.com | The Times-Picayune) No Reproduction

at Matas Elementary on Thursday, May 1, 2014. Matas Elementary has to find ways prepare for the computerized PARCC assessment test in the 2014-2015 school year. Without enough computers or wifi capabilities, they are referring to this year as “transitional” according to assistant principal Liz Gurtner. “We don’t want the technology for the kids to be the blockage for doing well and it takes a few years for them to get prepared.” The second grade glass is using Promethean boards, audio assisted reading exercises, and a mix of computers and pencil-based testing to prepare them for the computer testing in 5th grade. (Photo by Julia Kumari Drapkin, Nola.com | The Times-Picayune) No Reproduction

At Mildred Harris, there are four tablets and four desktop computers per classroom, in addition to 100 portable computers in two laboratories. Blended learning has students in all grades rotate through centers, where part of their class time is spent in small groups with a teacher and another part is spent doing individualized learning on a computer. Students reinforce mathematics and reading lessons in lab sessions every day, and during workbook sessions in group class time, a tablet is passed around for students to do individual work.

“This is an example of our idea of a digital district,” said Bill Murphy, Jefferson’s school network director. Even as early as pre-kindergarten, Mildred Harris students play on an interactive whiteboard or learn phonics through tablets. “We would like to get to a point where all schools are using tablets in a way that’s integrated into instruction,” Murphy said.

Meza said his vision of Jefferson’s use of technology largely mirrors its implementation at Mildred Harris, where school lessons can become a more personalized experience through computer programs that tailor lessons based on how many questions a student answers correctly. With more technology, Meza said, the school system can become more “data-driven,” and teachers have an easier time identifying students’ weaknesses.

At Matas Elementary, students learn in a more conventional classroom setting. There are two to three older desktop computers in each classroom, and students do use them for individualized learning. But there is no computer lab, and Matas has no tablets. In a kindergarten class recently, students sat in a circle as a teacher brought up words on a whiteboard, but across the hall, third graders were testing quietly on pencil and paper.

Students work at MacBooks in the technology lab at Mildred Harris Elementary School in Bridge City on Wednesday, May 15, 2014. (Michael DeMocker, Nola.com / The Times-Picayune) No Reproduction

Students work at MacBooks in the technology lab at Mildred Harris Elementary School in Bridge City on Wednesday, May 15, 2014. (Michael DeMocker, Nola.com / The Times-Picayune) No Reproduction

“We have been transitioning. We’ve been adapting our tests to meet Common Core – just with pencil and paper,” Principal Pat Helmstetter said.

Next door to Matas, at T.H. Harris Middle School, administrators are seeing other challenges with technology readiness. Adam Michels, the school’s testing coordinator, says he is a little worried that the school has 80 computers to run the exam coming next year but will need to test about 750 students. That’s a current ratio of more than nine students per computer.

“After the field test, I think it would be a very big logistical challenge … getting it up and running,” Michels said. He thought T.H. Harris was perhaps even more technology ready than other Jefferson schools, for it was part of the last round of upgrades in 2006. Yet when the exam was field-tested in April, he said, even some computers that supposedly were deemed ready to implement it experienced inexplicable problems. He said he even made a lengthy phone call to Pearson PLC, the company that implements the exam.

Still, he predicted students and staff will be able to handle the exam, if only they weren’t on such a tight deadline from the state. “It’s definitely doable,” he said. “It’s done at college levels. It can be done at this level.

“It’s just happening very fast.”

MOVING FORWARD

Jefferson is unlikely to equip every school the way it has Mildred Harris. The system has plans to give upwards of 60 computers to individual schools, depending on need.

As it stands however, at Matas, with a total of about 50 computers for testing next year, Helmstetter said implementing the exam will take about 10½ days, as the school rotates groups of students in and out of computer labs.

Meza’s administration is working on a comprehensive plan for computer devices and wireless upgrades at each school. It expects to present the request to the school board in June. The cost of improving wireless speed and data storage alone is estimated at $7.5 million, and no one yet knows the cost of buying or upgrading devices.

Yet on the ground, the atmosphere at Matas is optimistic. “I don’t see the transition as being that great,” Helmstetter said. “We know what’s coming.”

This story was produced by NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune in 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.

Reproduction of this story is not permitted.

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