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JSD: Technology in 'crisis mode'

Posted: March 18, 2012 - 12:09am
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Sixth-grader Marlena Romanoff works on one of the older eMacs in the Dzantak'i Heeni Middle School library on Friday. The computers were bought with grant money in 2006 but the computer's processors are ten or more years old making for networking problems within the school.  Michael Penn/Juneau Empire
Michael Penn/Juneau Empire
Sixth-grader Marlena Romanoff works on one of the older eMacs in the Dzantak'i Heeni Middle School library on Friday. The computers were bought with grant money in 2006 but the computer's processors are ten or more years old making for networking problems within the school.

NOTE: This is the first in a two-part report on technology in the Juneau School District.

 

Imagine a teacher using current events — like the conflict in Syria — in a social studies class. The teacher tries to pull up a video and an interview from C-SPAN on the topic — it takes a half hour to load, or never does.

This is an everyday scenario of what teachers are up against at many schools across Juneau School District because of problems with technology. A scenario, said Assistant Superintendent Laury Scandling, that has teachers throwing up their arms and saying “I’m done.” It seems many teachers are giving up on trying to infuse technology in their classrooms to make curriculum relevant to students — something the district has asked them to do.

“(Technology) has become a barrier,” Scandling said. “When we talk about having a world-class school system, it is not going to happen unless we’re tech current.”

There are multiple pieces to the puzzle to reveal how so many computers in the district became so old many are indeed on the verge — or are already — unusable for classroom purposes. Another piece is that it isn’t just the hardware, it’s the Internet capacity.

The central piece to the issue is the district does not have a refresh cycle for technology built into the budget. It’s something board members like Mark Choate have been pushing for more and more each year. While the Fiscal Year 2013 budget hasn’t been finalized, there is a line to add $300,000 in the general fund for technology.

Why that’s important is because the speed of technology is warping by, while the district has used old, longer standing methods of replacing technology. Scandling said in the past, schools have gotten new technology by either including funds for upgrades when the buildings are renovated, or via a technology bond initiative. There are problems with both approaches. School renovations happen maybe every 15 to 20 years, Scandling said.

“Thirty percent of our inventory is older than 5 years,” she said. “We have got about 3,500 computers. Anything older than 5 years is considered not any longer serviceable.”

Scandling said the community has been very supportive of the school district and has passed two separate technology bonds over the past 15 years or more to replace computers and related hardware over the years.

That kind of bonding is no longer applicable, Scandling said, because it requires capital equipment to be usable for at least 10 years.

She said there also was one downside to using those bond funds for technology.

“What happened was kind of a forklift — we brought a whole lot of stuff in and implemented it,” Scandling said. “That was wonderful. It came at a time when revenues were as such that having additional funds for equipment tended to go at the bottom of a list as other needs rise to the top of the list.”

But without a refresh cycle fund, all of the technology bought with that burst of funding is now needing to be replaced at the same time.

Scandling said some of the district’s equipment is so obsolete, it won’t accept updates anymore. That can be incredibly problematic when schools are using technology to teach parts of the core curriculum — literacy for example.

Other programs that are facing a technology barrier battle are Power School — an online student information system — and Destiny, the programming used to run the district’s libraries.

“Those absolutely have to be well functioning,” Scandling said. “The question is, does your machine accept the update to read the information?”

That answer is closer and closer to being “no.” At Floyd Dryden Middle School, the school uses an accelerated reading program for literacy, where students go online every day and it tracks student progress. The school’s computers won’t be able to accept an update scheduled for next year.

These struggles with aging technology have prompted the district to ask for legislative funding — a total request of $355,000 for Floyd Dryden, Mendenhall River Community School, Juneau-Douglas High School and Montessori Borealis.

That funding, Scandling said recently, is currently projected to be about 1/3 of what they asked for. In past years, the Legislature has approved funds for similar requests from the district.

On the other hand, aging computers aren’t the only problem as to why the staff struggles with using technology. Part of it comes down to Internet capacity.

Scandling said the district has 30 servers — many working on a single purpose — that controls nearly everything internally.

“Unless you have a fiber optic cable that connects your school internally and externally, in this district you’re going to tend to experience some slow loading times,” she said.

Scandling said a team from the district visited Canby, Ore., a town comparable to Juneau’s size — rural, with a diverse student population and a bit higher of a poverty level.

She said that district has a 100 megabits per second (Mbps) connection for $850 a month. JSD, which just doubled its Mbps, has 30 Mbps for $7,000 a month.

“Our cost of our Internet service is nearly 10 times what a comparable community of our size pays,” she said. “It’s just a little rural community. That tells you that there is a constraint on our ability to buy more capacity.”

Scandling said the solution to that problem is still in the works. She said they have been working very closely with their provider, ACS, in actually mapping out the district’s technology infrastructure.

“They are mapping our entire technology in the district in every site,” Scandling said. “They’re going to give us a report on every site. We’re looking for the weak links. ACS engineers have been here several weekends. ... We’re working with them closely with some way to increase our capacity at some way that’s affordable.”

It’s not only past time for the district to upgrade and replace technology at the schools, but the way youth use technology, and the speed at which it’s changing is also cause for the district to reimagine the way it not only replaces it — but also uses it, buys it and places it. The district is at a crossroads now, looking at what its options are for implementing the best use of technology for educational growth.

“We don’t have a lot of general fund dollars to spend on things other than people,” Scandling said. “At the very same time I believe we are at a tipping point for technology being invisible in learning.”

Scandling showed what she meant by “invisible” in learning — she held up a pen, then a pencil. Those are core pieces in how we learn, she said. So, too, technology has become, she said.

“Honestly, we haven’t had a very good focus on the concept of how does technology affect learning and how do you use technology in a smart way to improve things?” said Choate.

He said when Yaakoosge Daakahidi Alternative High School started the one-to-one laptop program, he heard so many good things about how well students were doing and how engaged they were in education. That’s now spread to freshmen, however it’s not used with any other group of students.

• Contact reporter Sarah Day at 523-2279 or at sarah.day@juneauempire.com.

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