Archive for Thursday, July 19, 2001

USD 232 board poised to introduce laptop computers in district schools

July 19, 2001

The De Soto School Board appears set to approve the introduction of take-home laptop computers after listening to a presentation from a NetSchools Inc. representative Monday.

The board will officially make its decision at the start of its Aug. 6 meeting, which begins at 6 p.m. at the district administration building. But enough board members have signaled their support for the program to suggest it will win approval.

If so, the board will reverse its decision of two years ago when it rejected an earlier version of the NetSchools program.

Sandy Thierer of De Soto remained an outspoken supporter of the NetSchools proposal at Monday's meeting. Marsha Bennett of Shawnee has expressed support during past board meetings. Although they didn't attend Monday's meeting, Rick Walker of De Soto and Jim Thomas of Shawnee relayed their support of the program through e-mails or phone calls to other board members.

Even NetSchools' most vocal skeptic on the board, Bill Waye, shifted debate to exactly what the board would approve next month. He agreed with Thierer that NetSchools' successful track record in 20 different school districts eliminated the need for a district pilot program.

Waye and Thierer disagreed over how much the board should participate in the program's introduction. Waye said the board should direct the phase in, while Thierer said those decisions should be made district administrators with the board's approval.

In May, Superintendent Marilyn Layman presented the board with two possible pilot programs. One would introduce 876 laptops at the district's two middle schools for a total cost of $1.69 million. The other suggestion 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.

Layman indicated Monday that the laptops' introduction would be determined by funding and need. The program will be funded through grants and money that would be used to bring new computer technology to schools.

The district, with the assistance of a NetSchools consultant, is investigating grants that would help fund the laptops through a teacher-training partnership with Kansas University, she said. Grants available for schools with large bilingual enrollments, which those on the west campus have, might also provide funding, she said.

As part of his sales pitch, Renfro said the laptops save districts that are building new schools money through reduced computer lab space, wiring, new computer hardware and energy costs. Layman said that would factor into the district's introduction of NetSchools. The district is currently renovating Lexington Trails and building a new elementary school on 47th Street in Shawnee.

Renfro also said the district should introduce the laptops in schools with low test scores, a lack of home access to computers or the Internet or other demonstrated need. In response to a question from Bennett, Renfro said NetSchools' least successful introduction, he refused to call it a failure, was in an affluent, private school where most students had access to home computers.

The NetSchools program has improved since the board last considered the laptops, Renfro said. The computers have more memory and up-to-date operating systems. Whereas past models communicated with a school's server via infrared signals, the system now connects with radio frequency. That reduces the number of needed access ports, and related wiring, from three per room to one for every three classrooms, he said.

The wireless system, the program's ability to access pre-selected Internet sites aligned with a school's curriculum and the means to provide individualized student instruction 24 hours a day are the most important part of the NetSchools program, Renfro said.

The laptops are encased in titanium shells and more than meet military requirements, Renfro said. There is little problem with theft because of a program that shuts the computers down if they don't communicate with the district's system within a scheduled time, he said.

After Renfro's presentation, board member Jim Plummer told the NetSchools representative that his concerns were addressed.

Brain Waters of Shawnee, one of a handful of district residents who listened to the presentation, remained unconvinced. Citing Renfro's comment that NetSchools was least effective in affluent schools, he questioned its introduction here.

"I think most would agree this is a pretty affluent district," he said. "I don't think we have that many students without home computers. I don't think the benefit would be that great.

"As a taxpayer my kids are out of school I don't think we should pay for each student to have a laptop."

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