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Hillsborough schools struggle to add wireless access

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Published:   |   Updated: April 28, 2013 at 03:58 PM
TAMPA -

More than 100 schools in Hillsborough County still need wireless access.

Thousands of computers must be purchased.

The clock is ticking toward the transition to Common Core, the new set of educational standards in Florida aligned with other states across the country. Full implementation is set to begin with the 2014-15 school year.

It’s a new way of learning, a new way of testing.

But will the Hillsborough County School District, as well as other districts across Florida, be ready?

That depends on who’s talking.

“I think that we are going to be ready enough. But it’s going to be a stretch,” said April Griffin, school board chairwoman in Hillsborough. “We’ll make it work. That’s what we do.

“Is it going to be an ideal situation?” she asked. “No.”

Spring of 2015 is the planned date for the first new statewide testing under Common Core. The FCAT — or Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test — will be gone; in its place will be a test called the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, or PARCC.

While most of the FCAT is done with pencil and paper, all of the PARCC testing will be computerized.

“I guarantee you that we won’t have everything done that we want to have done by then,” said David Steele, chief information and technology officer for the school district. “But with the setup we have, we can do it.”

Fewer than two dozen Hillsborough schools have wireless connectivity on their entire campus.

The district is completing work at another 90 schools that are funded. That leaves 130 more to be done and not funded yet.

It takes two or three weeks to equip each school.

Making sure the district has enough computers on hand for the testing onslaught is a different issue altogether.

“The devices are the harder part,” Steele said. “Picking the right device is really the difficult thing. No matter what day you buy a device, tomorrow there is something new and better on the market.”

The hope is that at each school, testing for each grade level will be completed in one day. And officials don’t want to tie up the media center with nonstop testing that prohibits other activities in the centers for those days.

That means the district might have to buy as many as 400 computers for each elementary school and maybe 900 for each high school.

Those devices could easily cost several hundred dollars each.

That’s the part that concerns Griffin.

“I don’t know where the money is supposed to be coming from,” she said. “It’s always a concern with these unfunded mandates. When the Legislature creates laws and doesn’t give us the funding to implement, it’s going to take funding away from something else.

“This happens every year,” Griffin said.

Gov. Rick Scott has said he included $100 million in his budget for technological needs for schools. It remains to be seen what the budget will look like after the Legislature is done with it this week.

No matter what happens, Hillsborough — the nation’s eighth largest district — is in much better shape than many of the rural or smaller districts across the state.

“A lot of them are in really bad shape,” Steele said. “Some of the smaller districts have no idea how they are going to meet some of these requirements. I’m sure they don’t have a thousand computers sitting around.”

Ruth Melton, legislative liaison with the Florida School Boards Association, said she was heartened by the governor’s budget proposal for technology.

But she cautions it will take more than a one-year fix to address the technology needs in coming years.

“It’s an endless cycle and it’s a big price tag,” Melton said. “Technology goes out of date so quickly. You purchase some stuff one year, and three years from now any or all of that will be outdated.

“There is a lot of attention on the funding this year because the deadline is looming,” she said. “But we need recurring funding over the years.”


rshaw@tampatrib.com

(813) 259-7999

Twitter: @rshawTBO

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