Anncee Watkins walked around Bernd Elementary School’s computer lab, monitoring her third-graders as they broke in new computers typing out an assignment on former first lady Eleanor Roosevelt.
During her stroll, Watkins noticed that some students were making the same error -- not spacing between each word. She took a moment to address the whole class: “Students, how do we put a space in between each word?”
“Space bar,” her students shouted.
“That’s what technology does,” Watkins said. “It helps them stay engaged.”
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It’s a scene that’s playing out across the Bibb County school system these days. The district is in the process of finishing the final phase of its Student Computer Initiative, part of the district’s three-year technology plan.
Each school received $142 per student -- $3.5 million total for the school system -- to go toward student devices that could be used to help with online testing this year. Each school had the option to choose desktops or laptops based on its particular needs.
Funds for the upgrades are coming from a combination of sources, including the federal Race to the Top grant, sales tax proceeds and the general fund.
“We’ve been able to roll out approximately 5,200 modern devices across the district,” said Monica Radcliff, the system’s interim director of instructional technology.
The online test the students are preparing for is known as the Georgia Milestones test. Part of that assessment, which is given at the end of the school year for students in third through eighth grade, includes a writing and research portion.
“All of (students’) typing skills need to be infused in what they’re learning,” Radcliff said.
This is the first year the third-graders will be taking the test on computers, Watkins said, so the new devices -- installed just a few weeks ago -- came at just the right time to help them prepare.
The initial scheduled finish date for upgrading the computers was August 2014, but Radcliff said they’re looking to have new devices in all schools by the end of this school year.
Over the past year, the school district has made significant strides in its technological integration, said Mike Hall, the system’s former information technology director.
Hall said the computers were outdated when he came to the district in September 2013. He also called the district’s network infrastructure the “worst network in the world.”
“One of the issues we ran into was, both teacher and student work stations were in some cases anywhere from seven to 12 years old,” Hall said. Computers were still running outdated operating systems such as Windows 95 and XP.
One thing Hall recommended to the school board in the three-year technology plan he helped craft was to ensure that school computers are continually refreshed, much like a crop rotation. The first year, one group of schools gets new computers. The second year, another group, and the third year, the last group -- and then start the process over.
The school district has purchased millions of dollars in new equipment and technology services in recent years, but much of it wasn’t used. In fact, technology purchases -- and the way they were carried out -- were at the heart of complaints against former Superintendent Romain Dallemand filed with the state’s Professional Standards Commission, as well as a recent arbitration counterclaim against Dallemand.
In December 2012, Dallemand authorized the purchase of 15,000 Ncomputing devices from a company called CompTech for $3.7 million, but neither Hall nor former interim Superintendent Steve Smith understood why the devices were bought -- or what they were meant to be used for.
“The devices are a little virtual machine,” Hall explained. “They’re really to be used in small labs and rural settings. There are no deployments in the United States of a district as large as Bibb County.”
Also, Hall said Ncomputing devices don’t work by themselves. They require a server for every 18 to 25 devices, as well as licensing, monitors, keyboards and mice.
“None of those peripheral items, licensing or servers, were purchased,” Hall said.
If the goal was to use the Ncomputing devices as the district’s new computers, Hall said, it would have cost the district at least as much as the original purchase -- if not more.
It just “wasn’t feasible” to implement the devices, he said. “It’s not an appropriate solution for an enterprise level district like that with that many users.”
The school board recently filed a $7.5 million counterclaim with the American Arbitration Association against Dallemand, pointing in particular to the unauthorized purchase of the Ncomputing devices.
The claim says in part, “The district has only been able to use about 200 of those devices; however. The remaining 14,800 remain in their boxes in a warehouse and are of no use to the district.”
Despite the recent conflicts in bringing better technology to schools, the momentum appears to be moving forward.
“We’ve got approximately 1,100 more devices that we want to roll out to some schools,” Radcliff said. “We definitely would like to have the Student Computer Initiative 100 percent complete -- that’s our goal -- by the beginning of August.”
To contact writer David Schick, call 744-4382.