2015-11-18 / News

Elementary school students next up for Chromebooks

By Jim McConnell

By 2019, Chesterfield could be the Chromebook capital of the United States.

Over the past two years, the county’s school system has placed mobile computers in the hands of more than 32,000 middle school and high school students.

Now school officials intend to significantly increase student access to Chromebooks and tablet devices in the county’s 38 elementary schools.

According to a plan presented to School Board members last week, the school system expects to provide a Chromebook for each of its fourth- and fifth-grade students by the start of the 2019-20 school year.

Chromebooks will be allocated to second- and third-grade classrooms at a ratio of one device for every two students, with kindergarten and first grade classes receiving tablets at a 4-to-1 ratio.

At full implementation, the county’s elementary schools will have a total of 13,700 Chromebooks and 1,050 tablets.

Currently, each elementary school has about 95 up-to-date computers to serve an average of 700 students.

“We’re upping our student engagement game,” said Brian Jones, the school system’s executive director of technology. “I have a vision of third- through fifth-graders working a lot more independently, working together on projects instead of just sitting and following directions from the teacher to do this or that.

“In a differential environment, this technology gives teachers so much more flexibility to meet students’ needs. That’s a conversation we need to go out and have with the community.”

Unlike middle school and high school students, who are assigned a specific computer and allowed to take it home, elementary students will be permitted to use the Chromebooks and tablets only during the school day.

That was one of the issues raised during discussions between central office administrators and more than 1,000 elementary school faculty members, including teachers, instructional specialists and principals.

Jones said that input from those educators had significant influence on the pace of the plan’s rollout. While principals preferred that the computers be purchased and allocated on a shorter timetable, “they understand that we all have to work within the constraints of available resources.”

The School Board has approved spending $30 million for the middle school and high school Chromebooks between fiscal years 2015 and 2020.

The elementary school technology acquisitions, which align with objectives of the school system’s strategic plan, are projected to cost an additional $6 million.

That expense could be offset somewhat by cost savings from the reduction or elimination of schools’ computer labs.

Because of the increased number of devices being allocated directly for classroom use, principals have recommended cutting computer labs in each elementary school from two to one.

All laptops in the county’s elementary school computer labs are scheduled to be replaced in 2019, Jones said. But as the Chromebook and tablet rollout continues, principals may conclude that they no longer need computer labs at all.

Replacing 30 laptops – the equivalent of one computer lab – for all 38 elementary schools would cost about $1 million.

School Board Chairwoman Carrie Coyner also noted that by more fully integrating technology into the elementary curriculum, the school system might be able to more efficiently direct instructional resources to areas of greatest need.

Some elementary schools offer a technology class as part of their weekly “resource” schedule. Others offer world language.

But Coyner said that if elementary students use Chromebooks for independent world language learning, that would allow the school system to re-deploy world language teachers on the secondary level “where we need them.”

She also suggested that the technology resource class could be eliminated once the Chromebooks and tablets are fully implemented.

“We have to ask: Are we really best using our time at the elementary level?” Coyner said.

Another concern that surfaced from focus groups on the new technology plan is the amount of “screen time” children should have during a typical school day.

“I think some people fear that kids are just going to be sitting in front of a computer all day,” said David Wyman, who represents the Dale District on the School Board.

Jones acknowledged that students in kindergarten and first grade should have only about 30 minutes of screen time per day. Older students will also have limits on how often they use the Chromebooks on a daily basis.

“We’re trying to determine what is age-appropriate,” Superintendent Marcus Newsome said. “The children are going to guide us as much as the adults in terms of their readiness.”

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