published Thursday, February 21st, 2013

Hamilton County rushes upgrades to prepare for state online exams (with video)

Soddy-Daisy High School sophomore Hannah Robertson uses a computer while taking Pat Rose's computer applications class Wednesday morning.
Soddy-Daisy High School sophomore Hannah Robertson uses a computer while taking Pat Rose's computer applications class Wednesday morning.
Photo by Dan Henry.
Hamilton County Schools weighing iPads over desktops
Hamilton County Schools administrators are considering buying an iPad for each of the district's more than 42,000 students. At Soddy-Daisy High School, as well as several schools across the area, PC-based desktops are frequently used, but becoming more and more dated.

TECH BY THE NUMBERS

Here's a look at what technology Hamilton County Schools has in place:

* 13,595 --Windows computers

* 1,256 -- Apple computers

* 1,826 -- iPads/tablets

AGE OF PCs

* 564 -- PCs 1 year or newer

* 5,800 -- PCs 2 to 3 years old

* 5,952 -- PCs 4 to 7 years old

* 1,279 -- PCs 8 years or older

Source: Hamilton County Department of Education, information technology department

Hamilton County Schools Inventory
Hamilton County Schools Inventory

The Hamilton County Schools system is working feverishly to move into the 21st century. The superintendent wants to put iPads or similar tablet devices into the hands of all 42,000 students. He wants all schools to be wireless and all students to have home Internet access. Altogether, the infrastructure and devices will cost close to $20 million.

But pieces of that plan must be moved to the back burner because the state has put new requirements on school districts: They must be technologically ready for online state assessments by the 2014-15 school year. To get there, Hamilton County will front some $300,000 to upgrade about 6,000 existing desktops. Without the short-term fix, officials say the school system's aging inventory of about 15,000 computers could not support the new online exams.

But if iPads were already in all schools, there would be little need for those computers.

"IT [information technology] doesn't have the luxury to wait on all that to come together," said Patty Kinsey, county IT director. "Time is of the essence for us to meet these [testing] deadlines."

The school board's technology committee and central office administrators will continue to shape a plan for acquiring and using tablets in classrooms across the county. But IT staffers will spend much of the next year and a half working on getting current desktop machines up to par, Kinsey said.

A school-by-school technology inventory recently handed to Board of Education members shows that some schools have and others don't when it comes to iPads, Macs and PCs. Aside from overall inequities, the list shows just how far the district has to go in getting ready for the new electronic assessments.

The district now has fewer than 2,000 tablets for student and staff use. Of about 13,000 PCs, more than half are four years or older. Including iPads, Macs and PCs, the district has 16,615 devices for student and staff use. That's about one device for every 21/2 kids, though many on the list are for teacher and staff use.

Staff members at Soddy-Daisy High School have in recent years sought school-based or private funding to put computers into classrooms. But the district's iPad initiative has put future purchases on hold, Principal John Maynard said. He's waiting to see what plans the central office comes up with.

Once tablets are widespread, Maynard forsees little need for desktops. He's impressed with the many uses teachers already are finding for students' smartphones. Still, he understands why the district is investing in a short-term desktop fix.

"Here's the thing: In 2014, we're going to test online. We've got to," he said. "Part of it is about being realistic enough about when we would get an iPad for every student."

A timeline for the tablet initiative hasn't been firmed up. School officials are hoping to use state funds to build wireless capacity in all school buildings. Then they'll tackle how to go about acquiring the actual devices. Administrators say they're hoping to combine district funds, community-group support and students bringing their own devices to school.

"The thing we don't know is how many personal devices are out there," Superintendent Rick Smith said.

He's advocating a tablets-for-all approach because he says it will extend learning opportunities beyond the school day. And, ideally, the technology will change the roles of teachers and students, with students taking greater ownership of their own learning. No longer will the teacher be the gatekeeper of all information.

Those are the benefits of technology. And while some of the discussion and action is being centered on state tests, officials maintain this discussion would be happening now with or without the new exams.

"This isn't being driven solely by testing, but testing is obviously a part of it," said school board member Jonathan Welch, who serves as chairman of the board's technology committee. "We don't want to do anything that isn't compatible with the test. But it's not being driven by the test."

about Kevin Hardy...

Kevin rejoined the Times Free Press in August 2011 as the Southeast Tennessee K-12 education reporter. He worked as an intern in 2009, covering the communities of Signal Mountain, Red Bank, Collegedale and Lookout Mountain, Tenn. A native Kansan, Kevin graduated with bachelor's degrees in journalism and sociology from the University of Kansas. After graduating, he worked as an education reporter in Hutchinson, Kan., for a year before coming back to Chattanooga. Honors include a ...

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