ST. PETERSBURG — The biggest growth challenge facing Pinellas County schools may not be changing curricula, shifting teachers or engaging students.
For Tom Lechner, assistant superintendent of technology and information systems, it’s bandwidth.
“There are so many devices and there are so many operating systems, Web browsers, and we have to support and manage all of those,” Lechner said. “You’d be hard pressed to name any part of our district that doesn’t rely on technology. It’s quite a task, but we’re in a good position to tackle it.”
This year, the technology department is focused on upgrading wireless capabilities and bandwidth at all schools. By October, the 26-member Technology Committee will have a five-year plan for implementing new technology and ensuring each classroom meets the digital requirements outlined in the state’s new Florida Standards curriculum.
The committee will meet in August to create a timeline for evolving classrooms into the futuristic, individualized learning centers.
“We know technology is very motivating for children; they all have iPhones, they’re texting friends, and they’re motivated by that so education has to keep up with the times,” said Sandra Downes, Executive Director of Elementary Education.
The district recently purchased a large piece of equipment to manage and prioritize bandwidth — the communications foundation that supports all iPads, computers, testing computers and other personal devices required to operate a classroom. The district already has spent about $1 million on computer applications alone, and each change requires existing devices to be upgraded or refurbished. The district also must choose the best software to use, install firewalls and programs on student iPads and computers and upgrade existing telephone lines.
Two elementary schools will open next year as “technology magnets,” but all schools gradually are being outfitted with more computers, iPads, laptops and Smart Boards — classroom white boards that also act as touch screens and video projectors. Each classroom will only be outfitted with a Smart Board after the teacher completes the professional development training to use more technology. Then, their lessons can use interactive videos, touchscreen lessons and quizzes where students can answer questions by pushing a button and see the board display answers in graphs and charts. Recording student participation in those quizzes adds another incentive to pay attention in class.
“Right now, things like the Smart Board are becoming more the norm than the extreme,” Downes said. “When computers first came into being there was maybe one per teacher, and then gradually we added more and more. Most of our elementary schools at this time have one to two computer labs, mobile labs where they can rotate the machines around, e-books and e-readers available for students to check out in the library, and laptops they can take home for assignments.”
The special education departments and Title 1 schools began offering iPads and e-readers for those students to access e-books this past year. It’s too early to tell how the devices have affected student learning, but school officials said parents and siblings have commented on how they have used the devices, as well, to promote their own learning.
This summer, hundreds of teachers are attending professional development workshops to improve their own skills with computers and iPads, and those lessons will trickle down to the classroom, Downes said.
Paying for the new devices has proved to be a challenge, and the state has allocated an extra $1.8 million to help Pinellas’ efforts this year. The school district will spend about $481,000 for online assessments created by Performance Matters, $360,000 for additional bandwidth, $240,000 for Internet access and $117,000 for the Decision Ed assessment program.
“We all know what the answers are, but we don’t always have the money to do it. It’s very, very costly and we want to make sure we’re spending our money wisely and eliminating waste,” Lechner said.
Local businesses and community organizations such as Pinellas Education Foundation have donated computers and devices to schools, or helped with teacher training. Textbook companies are offering more materials online, which cuts down on costs. Teachers guides now more commonly are purchased in online formats, and the state requires all districts to spend at least 50 percent of their funding for instructional materials on digital tools by the 2015-16 school year.
Yet, with the focus on improving students’ typing skills and tech literacy, especially in the elementary level, the school district also must ensure skills such as cursive writing don’t fall to the wayside, Downes said. State legislators voted to keep the cursive writing requirement in the Florida Standards curriculum, and Pinellas schools are renewing their focus on the skill.
“The curriculum and the standards are the basis for what students learn, and the technology is just a tool for us to engage and motivate the students,” Downes said. “It’s not something they’re glued to all day long. Real books are still going to part of the daily routine.”