Archive for Thursday, August 9, 2001

Schools cross digital divide

August 9, 2001

The De Soto school board took action Monday that will make laptop computers a common sight in area schools and homes.

The board voted to make NetSchools Inc. laptop computer program the district's classroom technology system. With the vote, the district's administration was instructed to develop proposals to finance and introduce the program.

NetSchools markets laptop computers to school districts that are made available to students 24 hours a day. At school, the wireless laptops link to a school's server and the Internet via radio frequency. Information from Web sites aligned to a school's curriculum can be downloaded to the laptops for homework assignments.

With the board's decision, De Soto will be the first district in the Midwest using the NetSchools laptop program, which cost about $2,000 per student.

Bill Waye of Shawnee was the only board member to vote against the proposal. He maintained the board didn't have enough specific information about how NetSchools would be introduced as the district's "curriculum delivery system" or how the board would pay for it.

"I don't believe we can accept this as our delivery system until we decide where the money comes from and how we pay for it," he said. "I don't even have a clue about what a district-wide implementation means. I don't know how much it costs."

The district is going to spend money for technology with or without NetSchools, board member Jim Thomas of Shawnee said. That would be money spent on an inferior product because no other alternative offers students 24-hour access to material aligned with the district's curriculum, he said.

NetSchools, Thomas said, would help the district achieve its goal, stated in its strategic plan, of offering a visionary, world-class education.

"We don't want to simply be on a par or parity with the rest of the districts in the county," he said. "I think this is the way to do that."

Thomas admitted the board's decision was "nebulous," but said the board was making a board strategic plan. It was up to Superintendent Marilyn Layman and her administrative staff to provide the tactical details, he said.

In that, NetSchools isn't any different from other policy decision the board makes, board member Sandy Thierer said. The board reviews specifics when the administration presents its proposal about how it will introduce NetSchools into district classrooms and how that will be financed.

"Anytime we set a policy, it is their job to flesh out the details," she said. "I expect them to come back with a proposal about how this will be financed and implemented. When we see that, I expect another decision from the board."

Thierer said the board already knows the program is to be paid for through grants and technology funds the district would otherwise spend on traditional classroom computers, labs and associated wiring.

After the meeting, Layman said she would have to act quickly if the laptops were to be introduced next August. Her goal is to present the board with a proposal in September. Although the board decision would eventually make the laptops available to all district students, it will be made available in phases to specific grade levels or school buildings. Layman said the proposal she develops for next month will be based on one of the two possible models she presented the board in May. One of those proposals would introduce 876 laptops at the district's two middle schools at a cost of $1.69 million. The other proposal would introduce 922 computers at the district's west campus of Starside Elementary, Lexington Trails Middle School and De Soto High School for an estimated $2.2 million.

That Layman said it is a "given" that the new elementary school being built on 47th Street in Shawnee would open with laptops. District technology director Doug Weis estimated it would be $126,000 cheaper to equip the new school with the NetSchools program rather than the traditional classroom computers and computer labs.

The district has already explored possible grant funding, Layman said. With the board's policy decision, the superintendent said she could enter into more serious discussions.

Possible sources of grant funding include a joint teacher-training program with Kansas University and English as a second language and bilingual education grants, Layman said. NetSchools has made a grant writer experienced with federal grants available to the district, she said.

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