SARANAC LAKE - School districts need to embrace technology in the classroom if they want their students to be ready for college and careers.
That was the message Joe Kardash, superintendent of the Colton-Pierrepont Central School District, delivered Thursday during a "Forum on Wired Schools, Teachers and Students" at Saranac Lake High School.
"Technology is not a Band-Aid. Technology is not just something on the side," Kardash told a roomful of school officials, teachers and parents from across the Tri-Lakes. "It is a critical resource to everyday teaching at this point. There's no way around that."
Joe Kardash, superintendent of the Colton-Pierrepont Central School District, speaks Thursday at a “Forum on Wired Schools, Teachers and Students” at Saranac Lake High School.
(Enterprise photo — Chris Knight)
Kardash outlined how his small school district, with an enrollment of 325 students, became the first in the region to give a laptop computer to every student in grades 3 through 12. Older kids in grades 7 through 12 can bring them home, but the younger students' computers stay at school. The computers the district purchased are Google Chromebooks, which use Google software and store files on the Internet, unlike traditional laptops which have their own applications on a hard drive.
"All our devices are connected to 'The Cloud,'" Kardash said. "This is where we're going."
Peter Edwards, technology coordinator for the Colton-Pierrepont school district, said there are currently 180 laptops being used by students, 145 of which can go home. He said students and their parents have to sign up for an insurance policy that costs $25, proceeds from which are put into a repair fund. If a laptop is broken accidentally, the student or parent has to pay $100. Last year, Edwards said he replaced eight or nine computers.
"We teach the kids to have their own stake or investment in these," he said. "They belong to school. They are tools for your work."
Kardash noted that the state is moving toward implementing computer-based tests by 2015, although that date could change. Selected school districts will be field testing computer-based exams this year. Districts will need to be ready for that transition, he said.
"If we have to have to have them ready to take those tests, we have to invest that money," Kardash said. "If we're going to put a device in their hand to get ready to take a test, shouldn't we be putting a device in their hand to transform education, which will also get them ready to take the test?"
The bigger reason for investing in technology now, Kardash said, is to prepare students for life after high school.
"Can they use a piece of technology comfortably? Do they know how to collaborate online? Do they have the self-control to stay focused? Those are college- and career-ready skills we need to teach our kids."
"This is all great, but we don't have money for it." That's what Kardash said he hears from school officials when he talks about putting a laptop in the hands of each student.
He said there are several different ways to invest in technology and have it partially subsidized by the state, such as by tacking it onto a building project or making it a BOCES-aided purchase.
Kardash said the cost of each laptop, per student, is about $270. Add to that network improvements that will cost $200 per student. If a district can get 50 percent state aid on that roughly $500-per-student cost, the investment would be about $250 a student.
"That's two textbooks," Kardash said. "Is it worth installing the infrastructure and giving them a laptop for the costs of two textbooks?"
Those figures don't include what a district would save by no longer needing computer labs, using less paper and toner and buying e-textbooks, which are generally less expensive than hard-copy textbooks. Kardash noted that his district's electricity costs also went down after investing in student laptops because the computer labs are no longer in use and students are charging their laptop batteries at home overnight.
"This isn't as monumental as it's made out to be if you break it out and think about it," he said. "Don't let (cost) be the hurdle that keeps your kids from moving forward."
Before a district considers giving students their own computers, Kardash said there needs to be a dialogue about how to make the kids good "digital citizens."
"What we found is we put the cart before the horse," he said. "Start the conversation with your students with digital citizenship. What do they think is appropriate or not appropriate? What's polite? What's impolite? We should have done that first; we didn't."
Parental involvement is also important, Kardash said. Since Colton-Pierrepont started providing laptops to its students, Kardash said parents are watching what their kids do online more than before, creating what he called "an online parent watch group" that brought "a new level of accountability."
Another big talking point is setting limits on what websites students can access. Kardash said Colton-Pierrepont only blocks pornography and gambling sites.
"The rest of the things are not filtered, and it is on purpose," he said. "There is a skill in self-control, and when they go off to college and they can't control themselves and they're going to spend all their time on Facebook, or they're going to go off and get a job and spend all their time on social media, have we really prepared them?"
Kardash acknowledged there's a "digital divide" in which some families don't have or can't afford Internet access.
"All of our kids deserve equitable access to technology," he said. "Can I make sure every kid has broadband access to their house? I can't. But can I make sure every kid has the ability to access some sort of technology at any time? I can do that. If they have (a school-issued laptop) and they go to Burger King or the local library and they can get online, they have much more than they used to have. We've at least leveled it somewhat."
Teachers will need time, training and support to learn how to use any new technology to their students benefit, Kardash said. If teachers aren't on board, then the investment will have been wasted, he said.
To make time for technology-related professional development, Kardash said his district has its administrators or teaching assistants take students on field trips or bring in speakers while the teachers get more training.
He also said there will be "champions" of new technology in the district.
"Leverage them," he said. "Let them get their peers on board."
Saranac Lake High School now has 25 Google Chromebooks that were purchased earlier this year by its Parent Faculty Organization. They're kept on a cart and are being used as a mobile computer lab.
How far the district and its 1,300 students move beyond that remains to be seen.
"As far as having one laptop per student, I can't see that happening just for the amount of students we have," said Caroleigh Meserole, the district's network administrator. "I can see finding out which students need them at home. Maybe we need 20. I don't think we need 600."
Saranac Lake Superintendent Diane Fox said school officials are working on a technology plan. Until that's done, she said she didn't want to weigh in on the question of whether giving every student a laptop should be a goal of the district.
"We have just begun crafting that vision," Fox said. "I'm not sure what direction we want to go. We can't sit stagnant. (Kardash) is correct about that."
Thursday's forum was sponsored by the local advocacy group AdkAction.org, the high school PFO, the Adirondack Community Trust and SLIC Network Solutions.
Contact Chris Knight at 518-891-2600 ext. 24 or firstname.lastname@example.org.