School leaders flock to Piedmont for lesson in technology
by Eddie Burkhalter
May 02, 2012 | 4481 views |  0 comments | 11 11 recommendations | email to a friend | print
PIEDMONT — The halls of Piedmont schools were shoulder-to-shoulder Tuesday morning with more than 120 educators, administrators and technology coordinators from across the state, eager to get a closer look at the district’s one-to-one laptop computer initiative.

The visit, sponsored by Apple Computer in partnership with Piedmont’s schools, is the second such visit in two years. With just more than 1,200 students and three schools, the district is small. But many consider Piedmont a leader for its use of technology in education.

“Since Apple has partnered with Piedmont, I think their stocks have gone up,” Piedmont Mayor Brian Young said in an early-morning meeting Tuesday, drawing laughter from the visiting educators.

But Piedmont schools Superintendent Matt Akin said the site visit wasn't about selling computers.

“This isn't an Apple commercial,” he said, adding that while it's up to each system to choose which vendor to use, he believes Apple has a vision for blending technology and education.

Three Apple representatives were on hand for the visit, as well. They declined to speak for the record. One said she couldn’t speak for the company. Another said the focus should be on Piedmont’s schools.

The district began in 2010 by leasing Macintosh laptops for each student in grades four through 12 to use 24 hours a day. The four-year, zero-interest lease from Apple will cost the district about 4 percent of its budget –- $850,000 -– and will be paid for with a $150,000 federal grant and with local funds. The district will own the computers at the end of the four-year lease.

An additional federal grant paid for 80 percent of the $800,000 cost of a school-wide wireless broadband network.

A $160,000 grant from the Susie Parker Stringfellow Health Fund of the Community Foundation of Northeast Alabama last year expanded the program to include computers, iPad tablet computers and iPod Touch handheld devices for K-3 students.

A city-wide wireless Internet system, currently being installed, is being paid for with an additional $750,000 grant, plus $250,000 in matching local funds, through the Federal Communications Commission's “Learning on the Go” program. The district is one of 20 such FCC pilot projects across the country.

Once the project is complete, students and teachers will have free Internet access at home, bridging the gap, administrators say, between parents who can afford home Internet and parents who can’t.

Along with the obvious, and most common, question from the visitors Tuesday -– how did you pay for all of this? –- many wanted to know about the basic nuts-and-bolts of running such a large technology program.

“How do you pay for and handle laptop repairs?” asked one visiting technology coordinator.

Answer: Dedicated help desks staffed with newly trained library media specialists and Jacksonville State University students (paid for by JSU) and Piedmont students. The cost of repairs is covered by parents, who each pay a $50 yearly use fee, though technology director Rena Seals said area churches have stepped up to help parents who cannot afford the fee.

“What happens if a student leaves his laptop at home?” asked another.

Answer: There are loaner computers ready to go at a moment’s notice.

Harold Jackson came to Piedmont Tuesday curious to see what kinds of changes are taking place in the classrooms. Jackson is the technology data administrator for Jefferson County Schools.

Coming from the second-largest district in the state, with 56 schools, Jackson said undertaking a one-to-one laptop initiative would be difficult to do all at once.

“I think you'd have to start small and build up to this,” he said. “Possibly a few pilot schools and then work towards this.”

And as always, cash-strapped districts across Alabama are constantly battling for funds. Jackson said paying for such a program would be problematic for any system.

“I think that will be the biggest obstacle anywhere,” he said.

For Piedmont though, Akin said prioritizing and looking for money everywhere, from grants to low- or no-interest loans, was the right thing to do for the students.

He showed recent tests scores to help make his argument. The percentage of Piedmont students scoring in the advanced range on the Alabama High School Graduation Exam has increased by 20 percent from last year, Akin said.

“My only answer is, it's probably student engagement,” he said.

Attendance rates have remained roughly the same for the past three years, but Akin said he believes computers are helping students become more engaged while at school.

Devvon Pettway is responsible for technology at Midfield City Schools, a small three-school system southwest of Birmingham.

Like Piedmont, Midfield has a large percentage of students on free and reduced-price lunch, about 80 percent, and it has about the same enrollment. Children qualify for free or reduced-price lunch based on their family’s income, making it a relative measure of poverty in a school district.

Funding is something that would have to be solved, Pettway said, but walking along a hallway in Piedmont Middle School, he said he was impressed with what he'd seen so far.

“Especially the partnerships between the schools, the city and the community,” he said. “That's what I hope we're able to do.”

Staff writer Eddie Burkhalter: 256-235-3563. On Twitter @Burkhalter_Star.

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