So, earlier this week I finally got off my chest the big dilemma that has been bothering me and keeping me from writing for nearly two months. In that post I more or less explained the conditions that have been surrounding my career lately and how they relate to bigger political issues regarding equity, school choice, revenue, segregation, and cultural identity. What I'd like to write about today is what I have been doing.
So, I was hired this summer by the Community School of Excellence (CSE) in St. Paul, MN, a Hmong Immersion charter school, as their technology coordinator. In that role I oversee and advise on major technology decisions for the school and help our network technician prioritize his work. I also teach middle school technology for part of the day. Since my role is administrative my job started earlier than the teachers. I had about a month before they arrived to get a feel for the place, get to know the support staff, and plan for the school year.
When I was first hired our director told me that she wanted CSE to become known as one of the more progressive schools in the region with regard to technology. She then told me that her goal is for CSE to be a 1:1 laptop school for grades 3-8 within the next few years and that she was thinking of starting this year with 8th grade. I was asked to research our options for computers, draft a policy for student use, and do an assessment of our network infrastructure so we can adjust to the increased Internet use 1:1 would demand.
So, I got right to work. My first priority was to get the policy done. I know the research on 1:1 laptop programs is inconclusive at best with regard to whether they boost achievement. The research that is out there seems to suggest that students in 1:1 laptop schools that were allowed to take their computers home at night did slightly better than those in schools where the laptops were locked up overnight. It is unclear whether the increase we seen in test scores among those who bring laptops home has anything to do with greater unstructured access to the computer or whether it is because those schools with policies letting students take their computers home tended to be in more affluent communities to begin with.
I figured we could test this theory pretty easy. CSE has a 90% free and reduced lunch rate and to my knowledge I have not heard of any other urban 1:1 laptop school with that high of a poverty rate that let students bring the devices home. At the very least, we have the opportunity to close the digital divide for the one remaining demographic still without access. For years the digital divide has been defined as a divide in access to computers and the Internet but as S. Craig Watkins has shown, today that digital divide has nearly vanished and has been replaced by a production gap. Computing devices, whether they be computers, iPods, or cell phones, are nearly ubiquitous in this country with all demographic groups except recent immigrants. That is the majority of my clientele at CSE. Most of these students and their families have immigrated to the USA within the last 5-10 years. Most are not yet fluent in English and only about 1/4 of them have a computer at home. Our goal with this 1:1 Laptop Policy is to close both gaps. The policy will allow students access to a computer at home and our approach to how we have students use the laptops in the school will address the production gap.
So, our policy document, much like most policy work out there, has been derived from existing policy out there. In fact, I have to say that I owe a huge thank you to the Van Meter Schools because our laptop use agreement is most closely derived from their policy but tweeked to meet our needs. Thank you Van Meter! (click here to see the policy translated into Hmong).
So, next thing was to find a laptop. I wanted something small and durable yet more powerful than a netbook. I definitely didn't want to go the iPad route, especially with closing the Production Gap as one of our goals. Last year at Harambee and Crosswinds we purchased labs of Classmate PCs. These are small computers built specifically for education. They are pretty powerful with 2 gb ram and 160gb hard drives. They have a touch screen but also use a stylus and the screen rotates 180 degrees and flips over to convert the Classmate into a tablet. The other cool thing the Classmate PC has is a built-in webcam that swivels. I fell in love with this device last year and knew this was what I wanted my students at CSE to have in their hands. I called Equus, the company which distributes these machines, and got them to give us a 20% discount for volume pricing bringing the price for these computers down to $440 each.
In the meantime, my network technician and I did some research on how better to configure the network to handle the greater load. Our school building is actually two old three-story Catholic school buildings attached by a hallway. All the walls, floors, and ceilings are made of thick concrete making Wifi work in the space a real challenge. A school I worked at two years ago, Goodhue Public Schools, has a similar setup so we took a field trip down there to meet with my colleagues there and pick their brains about how we could improve our system.
So, we made the modifications expecting an additional 80 laptops to be accessing the network every day. Then, our director decided to drop a bomb on us, "Great News! I've decided to give all middle school kids grades 6-8 a laptop. Isn't this wonderful?" It is wonderful and exciting but this meant that we couldn't guarantee that the work we did on the network would be able to manage an additional 160 machines. So, I ordered 220 Classmate PCs and moved on to phase 2 of the getting-ready process.
We have the added benefit/curse of having an almost entirely new middle school staff this year. Almost all of the teachers from last year left and moved on to other jobs or moved down to work in the elementary school. This presents hefty challenges but it also presents new opportunities. I am sure this is one of the main reasons why our school director decided to give all middle school kids laptops all at once. This also means that for this group of teachers any policy change will not seem like a change at all so now is the time to make changes. One change we felt necessary to make more effective use of a 1:1 program but also free my colleague of managing an Exchange server was to transition the organization to Google Apps for Education. This way we could give students email accounts and for those under 13 we could restrict them. This move also fixed some delivery problems we were having with our old Exchange server.
Google recommends a 6 week migration period when moving an organization to Google Apps. We did our in 2 weeks and yes it was a little bit more work than I thought it would be. And yes, things are working out pretty good now.
The laptops came the second week of school. Before passing them out to students I wanted to make sure we set them up with a nice selection of open source software and freeware that the students could both use for school and that they could discover on their own. Setting up 220 laptops took some time but we had them ready to deploy by our deadline of September 18th.
It's been a few weeks now since we first launched our 1:1 program. I wish I had more time to work with staff but we have been fairly successfully taking a Michael Fullan approach and establishing a culture of sharing, training each other how to do things when they need to be done and pushing forward knowing there will be obstacles and working together as a team to overcome them. Also, we have not had one laptop stolen or broken while in student-possession at home (we've had a few break at school though). This makes me seriously question the logic of other 1:1 districts with high poverty rates that make the students leave the computer at school. At home they are better taken care of. Also, as luck had it, Comcast announced shortly before we planned our deployment that they were going to offer a discount on high-speed internet for low-income families. Many of our student's families have taken advantage of this.
I'll write more about my curriculum in a later post and how I hope to address the production gap with it.