Glitches slow digital makeover effort for Utah schools
Students are powering on MacBook Air laptops and Skyping with teachers at Kaysville charter school Career Path High.
The new technology is partially funded by a state program that awards a tech overhaul to selected schools. But as digital projectors at Career Path High glow, students at other winning schools are still waiting for their promised devices.
And at some of those schools, administrators have yet to officially sign on because they aren't sure they can afford their share of the bill.
This year's Smart Schools program is "sort of all over the map still," said Rick Gaisford, technology specialist at the Utah Office of Education (USOE). "Ideally, we would've loved to have all the schools up and running the first day of school."
Carbon School District's Helper Junior High is opting out of the program, Principal Mika Salas wrote in an email. And North Salt Lake's Wasatch Peak Academy dropped out midsummer because its share of the cost, about $740 per student, proved too hefty. Other schools filled the open seats, but some still don't know whether they can manage it.
Equipping schools with iPads for each student remains a new process, so state board school members expect the program to have a few glitches, said Associate Superintendent Brenda Hales. The cost is a big hit for most schools, but some say the comprehensive, all-at-once package makes it worthwhile.
"It's not that it's bad," Hales said of the project in August. "It's just expensive."
Cheaper options could include using a list of approved school tech outfitters, instead of just one, she said. Or, if a school wants to bring in the new devices on its own, maybe state entities could help pay for their individual plan.
"Although I applaud people for trying to get technology in schools," Hales said, "this might not be the most efficient way to do it."
At this rate, she added, it'll be 150 years before each Utah student takes part.
This year's $2.4 million program promises to pay half the total cost of outfitting classrooms with either a laptop or iPad for each student, smart chalkboards, TVs and a wireless network, among other pieces. It includes training for teachers and three years of support.
Creating the program was a group effort by the Governor's Office of Economic Development, the Utah Board of Education and the Legislature.
Last year, lawmakers granted a free tech overhaul to three schools: Provo School District's Dixon Middle School, North Sevier High in the Sevier District and Sanpete District's Gunnison Valley Elementary. The iPads especially brought lessons to life, teachers said, because students could watch video re-enactments of Renaissance-era parties and plays, for example.
Some school officials said technology can help schools deal with growing class sizes, too, because the devices enrapture students and keep them on track.
This year, schools were expected to pick up half the tab.
Price charter school Pinnacle Canyon Academy is receiving the digital package, said Principal Roberta Hardy. "We would've never been able to purchase everything we're getting" without the award, Hardy said. "This is a huge help." The three years of support, she added, are "invaluable."
North Davis Junior High in the Davis School District couldn't afford the whole chunk at once, so after a series of negotiations, the school will pay installments to vendor iSchool Campus over three years, said Principal Ryan Hansen.
While there may have been a less costly way for the school to buy devices on its own, schools have few alternatives for bringing on a large batch of digital tools all at once, he said, And the program is a good idea because of the promise of three years of tech and teacher support, he said.
"But it's a lot of money for support," he said, "so it better be good."
When schools began applying for the program in spring, they weren't sure what it would cost because vendor iSchool Campus hadn't been chosen, pointed out Sue Winchester, a spokeswoman for the business.
Next year, sending out iPad Minis to each student instead of the full-sized tablets could cut costs without lowering the touted one-to-one student-to-device ratio, Winchester said. And there's wiggle room elsewhere. For example, some schools with smaller classrooms could probably do without surround sound stereo systems, she added. "There are always going to be some ways to streamline the package."
Schools that managed to cover the bill from the beginning got creative by reallocating budgets and researching grants, among other strategies. "But can that happen at every school?" asked Gaisford, the USOE technology specialist. "That would be the real question."
New Smart Schools in Utah
Pinnacle Canyon Academy • Price, charter school, 328 projected participating students
North Davis Junior High • Clearfield, about 1,050
Newman Elementary School • Salt Lake City, about 450
Utah Career Path High School • Kaysville, charter school, 175
Myton Elementary • Myton, Duchesne School District, 164
Rocky Mountain Middle School • Heber City, Wasatch School District, 859
Freedom Preparatory Academy • Provo, charter school, 285 on upper campus, grades 7-12