New school year will bring high-tech changes to Broward, Miami-Dade schools

What’s new in South Florida public schools this year?

Plenty: A mobile app for Miami-Dade, chess in every Broward elementary school, a health clinic for Miami-Dade district employees, and more. There will be digital textbooks for Miami-Dade ninth-graders and a new office to provide services for students with autism.

Here’s a look at some of the latest coming out of local schools.

Going mobile

Miami-Dade has put class schedules and bus routes at the fingertips of parents and students with a new app — following in the footsteps of Broward, which introduced its own app last year. Available on smartphones and tablets, Miami-Dade users can use the app to send an email to district officials, check out school maps and receive alerts.

“This gives you a lot of information on your phone, so you don’t have to be tied to your computer,” said Thais Prado, with the Miami-Dade district’s IT department.

Launched in early August, the app has already been downloaded almost 40,000 times, according to the district’s IT department.

Textbooks have also gone digital. That means no more lugging heavy history books to and from school — ninth-graders in Miami-Dade will instead be given tablets. In some Miami-Dade magnet schools, textbooks have been scrapped altogether in favor of digital devices.

And seventh-grade civics classes in Miami-Dade will use tablets instead of printed materials, but those mobile devices will stay in the classroom.

“We’re hoping to use technology in schools to change the classroom experience, just as technology has changed business. It’s long overdue,” said Sylvia Diaz, assistant superintendent for innovation and school choice in Miami-Dade.

The Windows tablets have rugged outer cases, and textbooks will be downloadable so students can access them even without Internet.

Eventually, the district hopes all high school students will have tablets, Diaz said.

Going Digital

In Broward, the district is expanding its “Digital 5” program, which added laptop computers and other digital resources to fifth-grade classrooms in 27 elementary schools last year. Students take the laptops home with them, and the program will now grow to 69 schools. A handful of sixth-grade classrooms will also phase in a similar program this year.

“People are excited about the start of the school year, we love having our kids and our teachers back, that’s kind of what we live for,” said Robert Runcie, Broward Schools superintendent.

In future years, Broward’s ability to add computers or tablets to additional grades may hinge on the fate of a November ballot question facing voters. Part of Broward’s proposed $800 million bond issue will go towards buying technology for schools, with money also going to school renovations and repairs.

Food trucks

Lunch ladies (and gentlemen) in Miami-Dade are also going mobile — in a new, district owned and run food truck. Equipped with a grill, oven and panini press, the truck will rove from school to school, and can connect remotely to student accounts so they can pay for lunch using their ID numbers.

The truck will serve the same meals students will find in their cafeterias, but Penny Parham, an administrative director in the Food and Nutrition department, said she hopes the new service will make nutritious food more accessible and appealing to students.

“It’s just one more access for students to get a healthy meal,” Parham said.

Chess curriculum

As part of an effort to boost students’ critical-thinking skills, Broward is launching what it calls “the nation’s largest scholastic chess curriculum in history,” with the game of chess becoming part of the curriculum in all second- and third-grade classrooms. That’s more than 34,000 students. The district says studies show playing chess “increases students’ math skills, reading aptitude and overall academic achievement.”

Health clinic

Miami-Dade school district employees with sniffles and aches have their own primary care center to visit at Miami Jackson Senior High School. In partnership with UHealth Medical Center, the clinic opens Monday.

Superintendent Alberto Carvalho said the district is opening the clinic to help cut down on the district’s own healthcare costs — as well as the cost to district employees. Co-pays start at $10, he said.

Physicals, checkups, diagnosing and screenings will all be available at the clinic, which the district hopes to replicate across the county.

The district will also deploy wellness coaches at every school to share healthy tips and get employees involved in healthy activities.

Autism services

Parents of children who have autism will now have their own Miami-Dade district department to turn to for help and services. Teachers who work with kids with the disorder will also have more resources through a one-on-one support team.

There are more than 3,600 students with autism in Miami-Dade schools.

“This is our fastest-growing area of expectationality, and we’ve seen a 9 to 10 percent increase annually,” said Ava Goldman, administrative director for the office of exceptional student education and student support. “That’s really the impetus for us creating a specialized office to focus on support and resources for students who have autism spectrum disorder.”

Also in the works: The development of parent coaches who will take calls and provide guidance to other parents who turn to the district for help. An online message board where experts will answer questions posted by parents. And apps for parents with podcasts, demonstrations and tips on how to handle behavioral and social issues using the same techniques teachers implement in the classroom.

“We need to have that continuity between school and home,” Goldman said. “It really enhances the attainment of the skills, particularly with our students with autism spectrum disorder.

Related stories from Miami Herald