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Sharon Springs’ iPad program could be a model for the state

Sunday, January 19, 2014
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Gov. Cuomo’s State of the State message contained plans for the future of education in New York, including the integration of current and future technology in the schools.

Inevitably, financing these innovations has to be addressed, but a project already under way in one school may give direction for the entire state system.

Sharon Springs Central School District is in its second year of an exciting project, not a pilot but a full-fledged program that will continue and be expanded.

The community has the lowest per-capita income in Schoharie County, the second poorest county in the state. Fewer than half of the homes have Internet access, and 58 percent of the students have a free or reduced-rate lunch. This is not a wealthy district.

There are fewer than 300 students K-12, but the district and parents support a rich environment and small classes, with an eye to the children’s future.

Combining resources

Using funds from many sources, the project has combined BOCES and state aid, state and local grants, existing technology budget funds and savings in the general fund to pay for this program, creating a new way to provide 21st century equipment for the students and staff.

Superintendent Patterson Green has high praise for Business Manager Anthony DiPace for putting the financing package together. The project is expensive, so the governor’s plan for additional school funding for technology projects may be just what many districts are waiting for.

After examining all options, the administration chose the iPad3 as its basic tool, and purchased enough for all students in grades 7 through 12, the faculty and school board. Students are issued their iPads to use through graduation.

They are loaded with textbooks, apps like Pages, Numbers, Keynote, iPhoto, iMovie and GarageBand, controls for inappropriate sites, and a sophisticated graphing calculator that does the work of a separate and expensive tool. Apps are updated and added as the curriculum requires, and the ability to communicate with teachers instantly, at any time, via email is invaluable.

The village of Sharon Springs has Wi-Fi, so all students are connected at school, at home, and anywhere else it’s available. Attendance, grading and report card software is also included, which could lead to the completely paperless system that was promised when computers first appeared.

Getting prepared

Teachers were given the iPads in June 2012, and used the summer to learn and prepare. Superintendent Green emphasizes that this is not a learn-to-use-computers program, but “focuses on using computers as a tool to learn problem solving, critical thinking, teamwork and communication skills across all content areas.”

Students have access to Cloud-based storage for their own information so they don’t lose it when they turn their iPads in at the end of the school year for updating and maintenance. Last June there was a 100 percent return. Only one was damaged during the school year, and the iPads and their sturdy casings are insured for this contingency.

Sharon Springs was one of just 24 schools districts in the country to get a Verizon Innovative Learning Schools Program grant, and this grant, along with other monies, pays for the hardware, software and teacher training. There are apps for all areas of the curriculum, including the arts, literature and even physical education/health. Many of the apps are free, and Apple is constantly adding educational software.

The typical cost of an e-textbook is $10 to $15 per book, compared to the paper/printed version of about $150 per book. Downloading novels is a licensing issue as well, but the cost of an e-novel is still about a third of a paperback’s cost. Workbook and packet pages can be scanned once and emailed to the students.

Student response has been enthusiastic, to say the least. I talked with ninth-grader Ian Rohac and junior Kara VanArsdal, and they both described a change in their focus since being issued their iPads.

More participation

They reported much more participation and discussions on local and other platforms, found homework more interesting and thus easier, and both liked the apps for glossaries, online research and reading notes.

Also, the iPads are lighter than a backpack full of books. Rohac said that some students don’t like change, and so are slower to adapt to the iPads, but there’s more participation in class discussions, reports and extra activities.

VanArsdal described an app for making pottery, everything from preparing the clay, throwing and decorating and then firing the pot. Their evaluation? “Great idea!” “Absolutely!”

Eventually all students will have access to these tools as the iPads are kept for the lower grades and new ones are bought for upcoming seventh-graders. Staff also integrates distance learning, online library collections, computer labs already in place, and other resources usually out of reach for rural students.

Has this made a difference? Superintendent Green cautions that the district’s impressive rise in Regents results shouldn’t be attributed to the iPads alone, but it is hard to avoid the conclusiown that any tool that actively engages a young mind is a good thing. Green says “we can’t go back. This is the 21st century, and to ignore these tools is crazy.”

Is this technology upgrade just an educational fad? Green doesn’t think so, and Gov. Cuomo seems to agree.

Karen Cookson lives in Sharon Springs and is a regular contributor to the Gazette’s Sunday Opinion section.

 
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