Some Hamilton County schools plunge into brave new digital world on their own (with video)

Some Hamilton County schools plunge into brave new digital world on their own (with video)

March 4th, 2013 by Kevin Hardy in Local Regional News

Garrett Payne uses an iPad at DuPont Elementary school Tuesday morning. The school has purchased dozens of iPads for use in their fourth- and fifth-grade classes to familiarize the students with the idea of using technology to find information.

Photo by Jay Bailey /Times Free Press.

POLL: Can schoolchildren take care of an iPad?

Amanda Thurmond's fourth-grade classes haven't touched a textbook in months.

Vandana Taneja has never seen kids express so much joy from learning.

And Donna Sellers' students now are teaching her new things all the time.

These and other teachers across Hamilton County are rewriting the rules of the classroom by incorporating tablets and smartphones into their everyday lessons.

And schools are doing it largely on their own.

As central office administrators and school board members ponder multimillion-dollar technology investments and 21st-century curriculum plans, educators across the district are losing patience, forging ahead with their own technology plans. And their small-scale efforts could serve as a testing bed, giving a first glance at the benefits and challenges the district may realize with the infusion of new technology.

"I really didn't feel like I could wait," said DuPont Elementary Principal Janice Scott, who used grant money to purchase 120 iPads. "You can't have one book that everybody uses. It doesn't work that way anymore."

County schools Superintendent Rick Smith hopes eventually to put an iPad or other tablet into the hands of all 42,000 public school students here. In the meantime, school officials are focused on improving the less visible infrastructure problems that keep schools behind. IT staffers will spend months adding wireless access points and increasing bandwidth in school buildings so they eventually can handle hundreds of new devices.

But new online tests coming in two years and the broader needs to be technologically savvy and reach kids in new ways are pushing some schools to move ahead solo.


DuPont spent about $65,000 in federal grant money set aside for high-poverty schools and received private support, as well. And instead of waiting for the central office's massive rewiring operation, Scott purchased off-the-shelf routers from Target and Walmart. That means instead of one seamless wireless network, the school has several individual networks operating only in some parts of the building.

There currently are enough iPads for all fourth- and fifth-graders. And the principal plans to expand access in the coming years. If kids eventually are going to take state exams on an iPad or other device, Scott said, they should get some practice on them well before testing time.

And, the iPads bring a new wealth of information to students' fingertips.

"This is what allows us to get out in the world," Scott said. "We're not just in our books anymore."

Such is the case for fourth-graders in Amanda Thurmond's reading and social studies classes at DuPont. They have abandoned textbooks since the iPads were introduced. With a wealth of online resources, the teacher said she can hand-pick what's taught in class and allow students to do research on their own.

"I had to learn it," she said. "And they had to teach me a lot of it, honestly."

Still, there are obstacles. Just like with the desktop computers in the back of her classroom, it's sometimes difficult to keep kids on task and ensure they aren't searching for the wrong things online.

With fewer iPads, teachers at Clifton Hills Elementary say students are so grateful for their turn on the devices that they rarely get off track. Each second- through fifth-grade classroom has four iPads, mostly paid for with private grant money. And with educational apps that look and feel like games, students view iPad time as a privilege, teachers say.

"I have never seen kids so excited about coming into my room and learning," said Vandana Taneja, who teaches English to speakers of other languages. "The joy. The enthusiasm. The way their eyes light up."

But it's not just about fun. Kids are learning the alphabet earlier and getting help with reading. They get instant feedback on the iPad -- if they get a math problem wrong or write letters too sloppily, they have to do it again. If they do it correctly, they hear applause. Teachers say they could never provide that kind of constant feedback to so many students.

"This is new to us. And it's just going to get better and better," said second-grade teacher Sonji Williams. "It's going to be mandatory. It's not going to be odd. Because right now it still seems odd."


But even the most pro-tech teachers raise questions about the district's plans.

Some are skeptical about the superintendent's goal of acquiring 42,000 devices. Many schools struggle to maintain the limited computers they already have. And teachers often have to ask parents or community groups to purchase basic school supplies such as paper and pencils. Or teachers purchase such things on their own.

Others wonder about distractions in the classroom or worry that technology could become a toy, rather than a teaching tool.

More privately, some question the notion that students could maintain responsibility for their own iPad at home and at school -- as students at the county's new science, technology, engineering and math high school do now.

At DuPont and Clifton Hills, the iPads are locked away when not in use. And they're never used outside a teacher's supervision. DuPont students are even taught to not pick up their iPads; the devices must always lie flat on their desks.

Something central office administrators and teachers seem to agree on is the idea that a widespread technology buy must be accompanied by plenty of training and professional development.

But just as pressing is the need to get students acclimated to technology. Schools have struggled for years to keep up with the latest technology. And access varies widely across county schools.

Some worry that when students move from paper tests to online ones in 2014-15, they could get tripped up with the new format. Whether tests are given on an iPad or a computer, educators argue their students need plenty of time to get acclimated before the test. Many Hamilton County students have never even taken a keyboarding or computer applications course.

"It's set up for failure," said Theresa Turner, the local teachers union representative.

Teachers mostly would welcome using technology to teach, Turner said, if proper training was included. But new devices should be piloted before teachers are held responsible for test scores, which now are a part of teacher evaluations.


Current school board policy bans cellphone use in schools. But teachers already are finding their way around those rules. And central office officials envision rewriting policy to encourage a bring-your-own-device atmosphere, which will help schools get to 42,000 devices quicker.

Some Soddy-Daisy High School teachers are encouraging students to use their iPhones in classes like foreign language, in which students use online dictionaries and translators.

Central High School teacher Donna Sellers even bought cellphones on her own. She found an educational deal to purchase 20 discontinued Dell smartphones for less than $40 altogether.

The phones have no cell connection, but students can access the Internet. And they've begun bringing new information to her aquatic biology, anatomy and biochemical nutrition classes.

"They are supplementing the classroom themselves and sharing it with the other students and me," she said.

Still, the devices aren't perfect. Not all students can access the wireless at one time. Three phones have died, and others often freeze up. Sellers thinks iPads would be an ideal size and quality for student use.

But she wonders what kinds of upgrades they would require, both in people and infrastructure.

"In my honest opinion, it will be tough," she said. "If we're going to do this, there's got to be lots of upgrading and additional personnel. And the buildings have to be ready."