St. Cloud, Minn., Referendum to Decide on Personal Laptops for Students

If the referendum passes, and it's all one yes-or-no question, the district would be able to provide laptops for all students in high school.

by Kevin Allenspach, St. Cloud Times, Minn. / October 19, 2015 0

(TNS) -- The coming $167 million referendum for the St. Cloud schools is the largest the district has ever attempted. The vast majority of the funding would go to build a new Technical High School and refurbish Apollo High School so it would offer an equal educational experience.

But that's not everything.

About 2.5 percent of the referendum total is for technology upgrades. While that might not seem like a big deal in the grand scheme of the plan, it amounts to $4.2 million and could mean a lot to students — even before the building changes would affect the high schools.

If the referendum passes, and it's all one yes-or-no question, the district would be able to provide laptops for all students in high school. The district is in the process of rolling out MacBook Air computers for every ninth-grader. That would be expanded to 10th-, 11th- and 12th-graders beginning next year if people like Gary Ganje get the green light.

"Without the initiative, we're working on desktops in a lab, and some students have computer access at home and some don't," said Ganje, executive director of technology and district support services.

According to Ganje, districts in Sartell, Sauk Rapids, Becker and Little Falls have technology plans in place that exceed the capabilities in St. Cloud. The St. Cloud district wants to get to a one-to-one ratio between students and computer devices. Right now, that has been achieved in middle school, grades 6-8, with iPad minis. Students take them home and can use them anytime, anywhere. The referendum plans also would call for those to be replaced with full-size iPads, and the minis would be re-purposed in the district, potentially at levels from pre-kindergarten through the elementary grades. Elementary classrooms also each would receive a number of devices for in-school instruction and learning.

Some of the technology money would increase access points for wireless connectivity at schools throughout the district. Resources also would be spent on mobile device management software.

Most of the benefits come back to students and teachers, however. Angie Kalthoff should know. She taught for eight years, including four at Discovery Community School, and is now on a special assignment as a technology integrationist, going from school to school as needed.

"What we're developing is a learning management system that's all about collaboration for the students — with their classmates and the teachers," Kalthoff said. "When a student does homework, they have the opportunity to get feedback right away."

The district is using Google Apps for Education and Schoology. Expansion of the technology ratio would allow more students to access textbooks on their devices.

"That's a much different experience," Kalthoff said. "You can read a passage and hold on a word to get the definition. You can hear it described to you. You can take notes inside the book and be interactive with the information — like flash cards. Instead of just looking at pictures, you can see video. You can find Web links to more of what you may want to know, and teachers can have quizzes built right into the reading material."

Expansion of the devices also may make processing annual assessments easier. Ganje said the indication from the state department of education is that Minnesota Comprehensive Assessments will be compatible with the full-size iPads going forward. Currently, MCA testing, in addition to other assessments, are usually done in a computer lab that can only accommodate a fraction of the students at a time.

"The idea is that you'll ultimately be able to test from that device, the full-size iPad for instance," Ganje said. "Assessment companies are beginning to write to those devices."

While ninth-graders are beginning to benefit from the laptops, the other high school students either have to have their own computer or go back to the old-fashioned method of learning: a spiral notebook and pencil. The high schools have a limited number of Chromebook carts available for use in some classes, but students can't take those devices home.

Lori Posch, director of curriculum for the district, said technology has to be integrated into a 21st century learning environment.

"It used to be where we'd take the kids to a computer lab but we can't do that with today's students," Posch said. "And it's more than just for assessment that we want the technology available to the students. They're no longer going to just look in a book to read about someone. They might Skype with the real person. Students can take virtual field trips. And, with online access to materials, we won't have to buy new textbooks because they'll be updated by the publisher automatically. In order for the teacher to engage the student hand-in-hand on these devices, you need to have equal access."

That means, everyone, all the time.

Ganje said there is a savings to the move, too. With the introduction of the iPad minis, he said one middle school has reduced its copying needs by 70 percent. The devices also retain a residual value when students turn them in. He estimated the net cost for the MacBook Air computers to be about $150 per year, per student.

Ganje said it's doubtful he will be able to add information technology personnel despite the growing number of devices in use, so the management software could help maintain the computers and identify which ones aren't performing properly. He also said the high schools might develop technology teams, and the middle schools could create a help desk for students who have an interest in I.T.

Posch said the assistive capabilities through the devices would benefit special education students, and Kalthoff pointed out how teachers can scan a room of students holding up varied response cards to questions to discreetly determine who has the right answer and who doesn't.

"The device is just a portal," Ganje said. "The meat of this is what you do with it. If (the referendum) doesn't go through, we'll have to figure out another plan as to how we're going to get our students access to technology. I don't know what that will be, but we certainly wouldn't be adding laptops at the other high school grades anytime soon."

Safety upgrades amount to less than 1.5 percent of referendum

Safety upgrades in the St. Cloud school district, including new secured entries at buildings that don't already have them, amount to $2.5 million — less than 1.5 percent of the referendum total. It's perhaps hard to gauge value on these, although you don't have to look very far to find the latest gun violence in schools. Almost a year ago, on Oct. 24, a student at a high school in Marysville, Washington, shot four classmates dead before committing suicide. And, since Dec. 14, 2012, when 20 first-grade students were killed during a shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, there have been dozens of examples of gun violence at high schools, middle schools and elementary schools.

The district maintains the security upgrades are necessary because the average age of its buildings is about 40 years old and the facilities were "built for a different time," according to materials explaining the need for the referendum. The safety upgrades would include specifically:

Clearview, Madison and Westwood elementary schools and the McKinley-Area Learning Center would have their offices moved to the main entrance to better control visitor access.

Entrances would be designed with security functions at the proposed new Technical High School and refurbished Apollo High School.

Lincoln elementary, Oak Hill, Talahi and Discovery community schools and South Junior High would get re-designed entrances to provide security. Recent additions at North Junior High and Kennedy Community School already incorporated those elements.

And, security equipment would be updated from analog to digital capability at all school sites.

©2015 the St. Cloud Times (St. Cloud, Minn.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.