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Miami-Dade bond issue aims to upgrade school technology

The contrast is stark: TERRA Environmental Research Institute, which opened in 2009 and is one of Miami-Dade’s newest schools, boasts wireless Internet, interactive boards and 350 computers in labs — plus the personal laptops and tablets students are encouraged to bring.

At Coral Gables Senior High, where the oldest building dates back six-plus decades, 180 teachers share five interactive boards. Thick concrete walls disrupt wireless Internet in the main office. And the most high-tech classroom has a projector jerry-rigged to a DVD player and five Mac computers, partly paid for by candy sales.

And hardware isn’t even the biggest tech problem at Gables High.

“The issue we have is the network infrastructure,” said Principal Adolfo Costa, whose golf cart ride across the 26-acre campus spans buildings from 1948 to 2005.

Upgrading the digital network across Miami-Dade County Public Schools is a big piece of the spending plan for a $1.2 billion bond issue before voters on Nov. 6.

“It’s critical for us. We can’t move ahead with our goal of providing digital instruction without an upgraded infrastructure,” said Sylvia Diaz, the district’s administrative director of instructional technology.

Every Miami-Dade classroom would also get some kind of interactive device, like a SMART board, under the preliminary plan.

Many educators say the digital boards make class more visual, allow multimedia-rich lessons and keep the attention of students, who can touch and manipulate the screen.

Changing times

In recent years, Superintendent Alberto Carvalho and the School Board have made changes to bring education to the digital age. The district raised funds to apply for federal money to make all schools wireless. Starting this year, students are permitted to bring laptops, tablets, smartphones or other gadgets to class, under the new “Bring Your Own Device” policy. More schools are offering the iPrep magnet program, which blends online and traditional learning. And teachers are allowed to use videos on YouTube.

But without an upgraded network, Diaz said, students who bring devices to school can’t use them very well. Hundreds of students logging on at the same time for a video lesson could crowd the bandwidth.

The bulk of the money from the bond would go to renovate or replace many of the district’s aging school buildings. Diaz estimated about $47 million would be spent on interactive classroom technology, like SMART boards and smart projectors. Another $69 million would go to upgrading the information network.

The total bill is actually higher for the network — $139 million — but the district has raised about $7 million, which could increase to $70 million through the federal E-rate program for school connectivity.

The district’s budget for computers is $3.5 million this year, with less than $1 million for support.

If the bond issue is approved, the money would be repaid through property tax revenues over 30 years, essentially continuing the 1988 bond, which ends in five years. For the first year, 2013, the average homeowner would pay $5 per $100,000 of assessed value for the new program, in addition to the $23 for every $100,000 of assessed value for the existing bond program. For the full term of the new program, a homeowner would pay an average of $27 for every $100,000 of assessed value, up to the maximum of $35.

At 10 years old, the district’s network is outdated, said Javier Perez, executive director of infrastructure and systems support. Currently schools can handle about 22 mega bits per second, or mbps. An average home runs at 18 mbps; new networks run at 100 mbps or more. “You have a six-lane highway coming into a one-lane highway at the schools,” Perez said. “That’s why it’s really critical we update the routers and the data switches.”

The State Educational Technology Directors Association said in May that schools will need network capacity of 100 mbps per 1,000 students and staff by 2014-15, and capacity of 1 gbps per 1,000 students and staff by 2017-18.

Miami-Dade received approval in September for federal Erate money for 19 schools, and more commitments are expected for the district’s poorest schools. The proposed wireless plan will bring the network up to 100 mbps.

But some schools also will need some electrical improvements to support more technology, said Jaime Torrens, chief facilities officer.

Newer schools, like TERRA and Carol City Senior High, would get tech updates later.

Torrens envisions more classrooms like those at the nine iPrep campuses that blend online learning and traditional instruction. Several classrooms are combined into a suite, where students can work on their own or in small groups, and teachers have the flexibility to lead smaller or larger discussions.

Network upgrades are a good first step for schools to improve classroom technology, said Michael Horn, co-founder and executive director of the education division at Innosight Institute, a nonprofit think tank.

“You can’t have a network that’s constantly crashing, and you can’t ask students to power down while others are powering up,” Horn said.

He is skeptical about investing in interactive boards because they “prop up the old architecture of teaching.”

Similarly, Scott McLeod, an expert in education technology in Iowa, said interactive boards replicate traditional boards. “It might have a few more bells and whistles, but the bottom line is kids are still sitting there.  . . It doesn’t change anything for the student experience.”

McLeod advocates changing the teaching model. One way, he said, is for students to have their own devices so they have more control and ownership and work on real-life problems, like building a bridge or creating a video.

Many schools are headed in that direction. While Miami-Dade has started a BYOD policy, several South Florida private schools, like Belen Jesuit Preparatory School and Our Lady of Lourdes Academy, have taken it a step further. All students use Apple iPads and have digital textbooks this year. At Belen, the iPad is covered by a separate fee, which can be paid month by month or in a lump sum. Kids take them home and end up owning the devices at the end of the year, said Teresa Martinez, communications director.

“It’s a new era in education, and I think it’s evolving faster than we’re even aware of,” said Marcelo Llorente, a leader of Building for Tomorrow, the political group campaigning for the bond issue.

Besides hardware, McLeod said, it’s important to invest in ongoing training so teachers they can incorporate technology into their lessons.

Diaz said the interactive devices have become a standard in new U.S. classrooms, and the district wants to achieve parity at all schools.

“Every classroom needs a presentation station to move into the use of digital content,” she said.

Because student devices, like laptops, only last a few years, it doesn’t make sense to finance the costs over 30 years, Diaz said.

“But over and over, I have seen that technology in and of itself will not transform classroom instruction, only teachers can do that. And we’ll get to the devices — we are committed — just not from this revenue source.”

Diaz said she did not know of any funds earmarked for training.

“We will require technology providers to offer some basic professional development on the use of technologies they provide,” Diaz said.


Meanwhile, most schools need more computers as the state requires students to use them to take many standardized tests, including the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test. New high-schoolers have to take virtual courses to graduate. Teachers submit grades online. And under a recent state law, school districts have to move to all-digital instructional materials.

At Gables High, online classes and testing take up much of the school’s tech resources. The largest lab, with more than 50 computers, is used for virtual classes.

During testing season, Costa said, every computer — 536 in all — gets used. To make room for testing, students in online classes move from labs to the gym, where they work on laptops.

Karen Aronowitz, president of the United Teachers of Dade, said the “dirty secret” of classrooms is that students use old computers on a clogged network to write essays or take tests. If the computers crash on the network, students have to start over.

“For teachers, we’re expected to do everything online, even sign up for insurance benefits, but you can’t get through. It gets jammed,” she said.

Aronowitz said she supports the bond referendum because the goal is to put all students and teachers on an equal playing field.

“If some kids have instructors that are using SMART boards, and other kids have instructors that don’t have access to it, and we’re paying teachers on how well kids do — and kids thrive on technology — what are you doing to both teachers and students?”