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New school year brings advancements in technology for Pioneer Valley districts

Aug. 20, 2014 | Debbie Gardner

GREATER SPRINGFIELD – From more textbooks with online learning components to increased Internet access and the use of more mobile devices, students in districts across the region will see a change in the way their lessons are taught when they return to the classroom this fall.

“It’s a technological world and it’s a challenge for the schools, because our students are coming in very tech savvy, and it’s our job to address the way they learn, not the way we taught in the past,” observed Marie Doyle, superintendent, Longmeadow Public Schools.

Here’s a roundup of the additions and upgrades in local school systems:

Agawam Public Schools 

Michael Feeley, information technology director for the Agawam Public Schools, said the district is “really pretty excited” about the addition of 300 new Chromebooks to the hands-on technology schools can provide to their students.

Though Agawam is not to the point where it can provide the one-to-one computer access that some districts now offer at some grade levels, Feeley said the consensus is “the more of these things we can get to more kids, the better.”

This new purchase brings the total number of Chromebooks in use in the district to 600. He said starting this school year, there would be a Chromebook issued to each department of the high school, there would be a Chromebook in each middle school classroom, and that the devices would be available for student use in the libraries at the middle school and each of the elementary schools.

To date, Agawam has a total of 3,000 computer devices in use throughout the district, including more than 300 iPads in use at the elementary level, desktop computers for each teacher and a Mac-powered video editing lab at the high school.

Feeley said Agawam is also moving toward an increased use of Google Apps in conjunction with the district’s online education software, allowing students opportunities for “more collaboration and more cloud-based work that they can access from home.”

To support these new devices, Feeley said the town has upgraded the bandwidth for schools in the district, and is increasing the number of online databases available for student research. He said the town is also working to insure that every elementary classroom will be fitted with a BrightLinks interactive projection unit by the end of the school year.
Chicopee Public Schools

Rose Y. Blais, assistant superintendent for telecommunications technology services for the Chicopee Public Schools, said the biggest change students and staff would see this fall is an upgrade to the wide area network (WAN), which would allow online traffic to move more quickly between buildings and provide more bandwidth per location, meaning Internet searches and programs would run faster.

“With more bandwidth, more people can be on at the same time,” Blais explained.

She said another round of new tech equipment would be going into Chicopee Comprehensive High School shortly after the school year begins, part of a two-year cycle of upgrades for that school. Orders for that location, as well as several other schools were placed after the start of fiscal year 2015, and would not arrive prior to the start of the 2014-2015 school year.

Blais said Chicopee Public Schools operates on a five-year technology upgrade plan for its schools and offices.

In addition, Blais said a cart of 38 Chromebooks would be added at Streiber Memorial Elementary School, based on the success of a pilot Chromebook cart program at Patrick E. Bowe Elementary School last spring.

The district has also invested in the Destiny online library program, which will be accessible to students at home. Blais said teachers cover the use of any online components in textbooks on an individual classroom basis.

Hampden-Wilbraham Regional School District

“Education is rapidly changing, and as a district we are doing our best to keep up,” Tim Connor, assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction for the Hampden-Wilbraham Regional School District, said.

The equipment that came as part of the new Minnechaug Regional High School has left the higher grades “in good shape” technologically, Connor noted, giving the district the opportunity to concentrate this year’s efforts on upgrades for kindergarten through grade eight.

He said the district has purchased more interactive projection equipment, particularly for use in elementary classrooms. This equipment allows students and teachers to physically manipulate the materials; such as items used for counting, helping to reinforce concepts and “deepen understanding,” Connor said.

He said that students entering middle school would have a new math series that includes a technological component to the curriculum.

“It’s still textbook based, but has more ancillaries, which gives teachers more opportunities to create differentiated learning for different learners,” Connor said.

He said the district would be looking to purchase more textbooks with online components going forward. As far as moving toward one-to-one parity on devices, Connor said the district is still doing research.

“It boils down to sustainability and the ability to handle repairs,” when choosing a device and platform, he noted.

East Longmeadow Public Schools

Gordon Smith, superintendent, East Longmeadow Public Schools, said that with the help of the Capital Planning Committee and the town’s information technology department, the School Department kicked off a technology renewal cycle by purchasing approximately 250 new Mac laptops to replace many of the aging desktop computers used by teachers throughout the district.

Smith said that 20 lead teachers from throughout the district received their Macs at the close of the school year, and took part in a week-long intensive class to learn how best to use the new technology to support instruction in the classroom.

“Those 20 lead teachers were incredibly energetic at the end of that week-long training in June,” Smith said, adding that they would be leading professional development seminars at their respective schools to help colleagues learn how best to use these new devices in the classroom “to support daily instruction and integrate technology into their teaching more frequently.”

Smith said the district would also be expanding the use of Google Drive, Google Docs and Gmail – which teachers and the School Department have been using for the past two years for collaboration and communication – to students beginning this year

“We will begin to offer students Google accounts through the district,” he said “This will increase the communication and collaboration between teachers and students, and from student to student.” 

Smith said the account rollout would begin with students on the secondary school level “as each school feels comfortable introducing that [option] and preparing students for [its use].”

The Google accounts, Smith noted, would be a complement to the district’s information portal that students and parents already use to access grades and assignments online.

Longmeadow Public Schools

Doyle said her district is moving toward one-to-one computing on the high school level this school year by allowing students to bring their own devices. Students who do not have a device at their disposal will have access to equipment at school.

“We will also be introducing more textbooks with an online component [at the high school],” Doyle said. “We have both a science book and a math book where there will be online learning attached to the textbook.”

She noted the advantage of texts with online components is that a student can access additional material wherever he or she is, “on an iPhone, or at home.”

She added that the district was really going to evaluate the increased use of technology on the high school level before introducing more tech-based learning in the lower grades.

The district will also be introducing a new online individualized reading program for students in kindergarten through grade eight, called MYON this school year. The program, Doyle explained, conducts a reading skill and interest assessment of each participant, generating a listing of books that should fit the student’s skill and interest.

“I’m particularly excited about the interest inventory because it will direct [these students] to a plethora of books,” Doyle said. “The more interested they are, the more they will read.”
Springfield Public Schools

Paul Foster, chief information officer for the Springfield Public Schools, said one of the most important upgrades the city schools have undergone this summer is a “dramatic increase” in the bandwidth available throughout the entire district.

A close second to the importance of this tech upgrade is a bump in the wireless capacity within each school, he said.

“Half the schools are already completed,” he noted. “By the end of the school year all the schools will be upgraded.”

In terms of hardware, Foster said Springfield has added 7,000 new Lenovo touchscreen tablets throughout the district, resulting in a ratio of one device for every three students at all grade levels.  The purchase raises the number of computing devices  – a mixture of laptops, desktops and tablets – in the district to 12,000.

“The superintendent and the School Committee have made a commitment to moving toward having one device per student,” Foster said.

Foster noted that every teacher in the district was also issued a laptop this year, and that the district is moving toward a greater use of Discovery Education software. This program includes a variety of audio and visual content that can supplement curriculum, allowing teachers to “build out” their courses online.

"It’s all indexed to standards,” he said. “If a teacher is teaching a particular unit, [he or she] can go to Discovery Education and find content that matches that curriculum.”

The online content, Foster added, would be available to students both in the classroom and at home.

West Springfield Public Schools

Michael Richard, interim superintendent, West Springfield Public Schools, said students entering – and returning to – the new West Springfield High School would see a big change in the way technology is used in their classrooms this school year.

“As part of the new high school project, we have purchased Google Chromebooks for each student,” Richard said. “We will be in a one-to-one environment.”

Richard said the Chromebooks would be issued to students at the start of the school year, just as textbooks are. Parents will have the opportunity to purchase insurance on the devices at a cost of $25 per unit.

Teachers, Richard noted, were issued their own Chromebooks at the close of the school year “so they could begin to develop content and plans designed around the use of these devices in the classroom.”

In some instances, the Chromebook will double as a textbook for students, Richard explained. For example, the district has purchased a high school Spanish text that runs completely on the Chromebook. Other texts will have online content that students can access through the Chromebook.

Though this is the largest use of devices in the district, Richard said West Springfield has numerous types of devices in use throughout the school system, including tablets and desktop devices

“We are using Chromebooks from the elementary level all the way up,” Richard said, adding that these “digital books” are being used to supplement textbook content at many grade levels.

Richard said West Springfield is also continuing to enhance its Pathways to Prosperity project, which gives students interested in pursuing a career in manufacturing an opportunity to work with local companies. Richard said the district has purchased the SolidWorks computer aided drafting program to give these students some experience with the types of programs they will be using on the college level.

This robust investment in technology, Richard said, is because the district understands “students will need the skills that come along with these devices to in sure they are successful in their college and career plans.”

Information from the Holyoke and Westfield Public School Districts was not available at press time.

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