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VOL. 129 | NO. 105 | Friday, May 30, 2014

School Board Unveils Digital Devices

By Bill Dries

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Shelby County Schools board members got a look this week at the new digital devices students in 16 schools will get when the new academic year begins in August.

Brad Osborn of Pearson North America demonstrates their educational software to Shelby County Schools board members this week.

(Daily News/Andrew J. Breig)

The first Lenovo Yoga and Yoga 11e convertible laptops to arrive were unwrapped before the board vote Tuesday, May 27, for the $5.4 million contract with Unistar-Sparco Computers Inc. to lease 13,000 devices for three years.

The devices, which will go home with students every day, will be delivered to the schools June 30, and administrators and teachers are already undergoing training.

With the laptops – which also work as tablets and are convertible to several modes – students will have continuous before- and after-school access to the “blended learning” curriculum that is aligned with Common Core standards.

The school system also hopes the devices will ease the transition to new statewide achievement tests aligned with Common Core standards – whether they remain the Tennessee Comprehensive Assessment Program, or TCAP, tests or become the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, or PARCC, tests. PARCC is a test that can only be taken online.

The Tennessee Legislature this year delayed PARCC implementation to explore other testing options but kept the state’s move to Common Core standards in place.

The blended-learning pilot program and computer software and hardware comes with some high expectations.

Shelby County Schools superintendent Dorsey Hopson pushed for the program after seeing it used in public schools in Huntsville, Ala., and seeing student achievement scores increase there.

“Almost without exception, students who use these devices do better,” Hopson said. “Without backing down, we expect 10-point gains. That’s a very strong statement. But I think the research will bear it out.”

The Pearson Education Inc. curriculum loaded onto the devices is what is expected to keep students engaged before and after the school day. Teachers will monitor students’ work with the curriculum so it’s part of what happens at school, not something outside the academic experience.

The learning platforms used in the Pearson software measure student achievement with analytics.

“A Learning Management System allows administrators to manage the entire scope of their education enterprises, while also measuring student achievement on an institution-wide scale,” according to the Pearson website.

Teachers can track students’ assignments and use of online content. The school system also has a “digital content repository” that includes a library of all learning content.

But the first questions from school board meetings were about the hardware and what happens once students start taking them off campus.

The devices are built to withstand a 6-foot drop, and chief information technology officer Emily Owens and her staff have put them to that particular test with satisfactory results.

The school system opted not to include cases for the devices because they didn’t want students carrying them to be easily identified and possibly targeted. They foresee students putting them in their backpacks as is, without a case.

The devices are barcoded, and if one is stolen, the school system can wipe its data.

The school system has a warranty on the devices that includes a 48-hour return. Every school in the pilot program will have extra devices to be used as replacements while repairs are underway.

Mandatory meetings on the blending-learning program will be held for parents of students at the 16 schools. Parents can opt out of their child’s participation, and children who don’t get a device under those terms could use one during school hours only at the school.

The elementary schools in the pilot program include Caldwell-Guthrie Elementary, Cherokee Elementary, Fairley Elementary, Ford Road Elementary, Levi Elementary, Lucy Elementary, Raineshaven Elementary and Riverwood Elementary. The K-8 schools are Douglas, Lowrance and Riverview, as well as Hamilton Middle, Highland Oaks Middle and Sherwood Middle. The pilot program also includes the new Maxine Smith STEAM Academy at what had been Fairview Middle School, as well as Melrose High School.

Meanwhile, school board members have authorized the board’s attorney to begin talks with attorneys for Hopson about a possible extension of his three-year contract to lead the school system.

The authorization came in the form of a notice to the board at its Tuesday meeting that talks were about to begin.

Under state law, for the current seven-member school board to vote on the matter, the vote must come at least 45 days before the Aug. 7 school board elections. That would mean the board could vote at its June 17 work session or at a special-called voting meeting any time before June 23.

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