Miami-Dade School Board

Miami-Dade to ensure every student has digital device by 2015

Each of Miami-Dade’s 350,000 public school students will have access to a digital device by 2015, according to a plan approved Wednesday by the Miami-Dade School Board.

Board members unanimously endorsed the proposal by Superintendent Alberto Carvalho to lease more than 100,000 devices, which will be paid off over a period of up to six years. The $63 million initiative, among the largest in the country, aims to provide devices such as laptops or tablets for students from kindergarten through 12th grade who wouldn’t otherwise be able to afford them.

“It’s unprecedented in the United States, this type of purchase,” said Justin Bathon, a director of the University of Kentucky’s CASTLE center on school technology leadership.

Wednesday’s vote comes as federal and state governments are pushing schools toward online testing and digital curricula, and during the early stages of a broad effort to move Miami-Dade’s classrooms into the digital learning era. In Florida, all state assessments will be taken online by the 2014/15 school year. By the following year, state law requires that all schools have digital textbooks.

Meanwhile, teachers are increasingly finding ways to incorporate computers and applications into lesson plans and homework, and School Board members are talking about revolutionizing education through technology.

Students whose families can afford laptops and tablets like iPads might be well prepared. But Miami-Dade is among the poorer metropolitan areas in a country where 15 million children are estimated to be offline. Nearly a quarter-million students in the county qualify for free or reduced lunch.

Carvalho said that would put scores of students at a disadvantage without help from the district.

“We will make digital access a universal right for kids,” he said.

So the School Board authorized Carvalho to accept leasing rates from Banc of America Public Capital Corp. that would cost about $12 million a year from the district’s general fund beginning in 2014. Through the agreement, the district would procure as many as 150,000 devices and distribute the first of three batches before Christmas. All devices - it isn’t clear what kind yet - are expected to be delivered by August of 2015.

The initiative would combine district-provided hardware with its “bring-your-own-device” policy that allows students to tote their own computers and tablets to class. The district sent secondary students home with surveys at the end of this school year, and preliminary results suggest 25 percent of kids have their own device.

In July, companies will be asked to provide information about their devices, which officials expect to distribute across subjects, courses or grade levels. The district is searching for affordable insurance options for families.

“These efforts are going to position us to use technology to change what goes on in the classroom,” said Sylvia Diaz, the district’s administrative director of instructional technology.

Similar plans have been put into place at smaller scales around the country. The most prominent example of a major urban district planning to provide students with their own devices has been in Los Angeles, where on Tuesday the Los Angeles Times reported that the Board of Education voted to spend $30 million to give iPads to students in 47 schools. The purchase is part of a one-to-one access plan for a student body of more than 600,000.

Bathon, however, said Miami-Dade’s plan is further along than the one in Los Angeles.

Studies have shown that, when used to their fullest capabilities, devices clearly improve education in the classroom. But some experts say schools run into problems from inadequate planning, such as system crashes and poor teacher training.

Some end up with “expensive typewriters,” said Vincent Cho, a Boston College assistant professor of education who researches the use of technology in education.

“We tend to think just because you buy the technology the job is done, but really there’s all these teaching and people issues,” he said.

Those issues were highlighted this month by Washington think tank Center for American Progress, which questioned whether schools are spending wisely on technology, and whether devices really are making a difference. The center found schools were often teaching only basic skills on its computers.

Carvalho, however, says the district has been planning for years and will not make those mistakes.

He said schools officials are focusing on content first. Teachers are also being trained with technology, he said, something that’s happening now with the district’s new federally funded $32 million iMath program to be implemented in middle schools this fall.

In addition, a $1.2 billion bond initiative passed by voters in November included $100 million toward technology-related infrastructure upgrades. Some $44 million is going toward increasing school bandwidth 10 times over, and all schools are expected to be wireless by next March. Also, the district is looking to partner with the county and municipalities to expand its school signals into neighborhoods so students have wireless access when they take devices home.

Another $38 million will pay for classroom hardware like SMART boards, according to a memo to board members. And $4 million will be spent on the district’s central network upgrades. The remaining $14 million will be stashed in a reserve technology fund.

The district is also still receiving part of $72 million committed by the federal government’s E-Rate program toward infrastructure, and has another $24 million freed up by a legislature decision to end a requirement to purchase text books, according to Carvalho.

“We are well positioned to in fact become the very first large school system in America that will provide universal digital rights for all its children,” he said. “If we as a community do this right, the guarantee will go beyond the school house into surrounding parks and neighborhoods, particularly those where we know there are digital deserts.”

And if the district plans well, Bathon said the results should be dramatic.

“If that happens,” he said, “you’ll have substantially better schools.”

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