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Technology saturates curricula in Alle-Kiski Valley schools

Brian C. Rittmeyer
| Saturday, Aug. 20, 2016, 11:00 p.m.
CCL Technologies technician Jim Massarelli begins to program 80 iPads in preparation for the incoming freshman class at Springdale Jr.-Sr. High School on Friday, Aug. 5, 2016.
Jason Bridge | Tribune-Review
CCL Technologies technician Jim Massarelli begins to program 80 iPads in preparation for the incoming freshman class at Springdale Jr.-Sr. High School on Friday, Aug. 5, 2016.
Ben Edwards, a special education and learning support teacher at Valley Junior-Senior High School, unpacks boxes and readies his classroom while watching his three children, Beau, 2, Macey, 7, and Brock, 5, at the New Kensington school on Tuesday, Aug. 16, 2016.
Eric Felack | Tribune-Review
Ben Edwards, a special education and learning support teacher at Valley Junior-Senior High School, unpacks boxes and readies his classroom while watching his three children, Beau, 2, Macey, 7, and Brock, 5, at the New Kensington school on Tuesday, Aug. 16, 2016.
Springdale Jr.-Sr. High School technology systems coordinator Tina Kaczor unpacks accessories for 80 iPads in preparation for the incoming freshman class on Friday, Aug. 5, 2016.
Jason Bridge | Tribune-Review
Springdale Jr.-Sr. High School technology systems coordinator Tina Kaczor unpacks accessories for 80 iPads in preparation for the incoming freshman class on Friday, Aug. 5, 2016.

The first day of school may seem a bit like Christmas at Kiski Area High School — every student will get a Chromebook laptop computer, which they'll be able to take home.

Likewise, at Allegheny Valley, freshmen, sophomores and juniors will each get their own iPad tablet computer through a growing “one-to-one” program that's theirs to use in school and at home.

Nearly 25,000 students will be returning to classes in the Alle-Kiski Valley over the next three weeks.

They'll find technology increasingly infused throughout their schools. It will no longer be contained in just one room or limited to one subject or class, but touching on potentially every course they take and everything they do — starting in kindergarten.

“Even phys-ed is using it,” said Jim Tedorski, Kiski Area's director of technology services and instruction. “I can't think of a course in the school that's not using technology in some form.”

School technology isn't limited to students. Through various systems and devices, on websites and applications, parents have access to and control over more information about their children's education, and a growing window into their learning.

At Burrell, through a new student information system called “Skyward,” parents will be able to track nearly everything their children do at school, including attendance, grades, scheduling, progress, assignments — even managing their cafeteria accounts.

Many districts offer similar systems.

“We needed an upgrade. Ours was out of date,” Assistant Superintendent Matt Conner said of Burrell's adoption of Skyward. “We're very excited about the capabilities of this new system, and I think parents will be as well.”

Conner says technology should be a tool for learning.

“It doesn't replace a teacher,” he said. “It should be part of their methods, another tool in their toolbox. At the end of the day, it's still about that teacher, that student. If it's used right, you can do some really neat things.”

Tying tech to curriculum

For schools to successfully use technology, it has to be connected tightly to the curriculum, said Ken Koedinger, a professor of human-computer interaction at Carnegie Mellon University. Koedinger researches the creation of educational technologies that increase student achievement.

“I think, for a lot of kids, the technology isn't all that new anymore,” Koedinger said. “What really gets kids' attention is when you're doing something that's meaningful for them, that they can understand and feel like they're growing and learning.”

Tying technology to the curriculum is the goal at Allegheny Valley, where they want it to be more than a replacement for pencil and paper, and students use it to do things they couldn't before, said Tina Kaczor, technology systems coordinator.

“Things change a lot,” said Kaczor, who has worked in computers for more than 30 years. “It's amazing. It's inspiring. The creativity is contagious.”

Technology allows for greater feedback between students and teachers, Koedinger said. Teachers can use it to prepare their lessons, knowing where the students are in understanding them.

For instance, a teacher can easily give a quiz that will show whether students are understanding a concept and the lesson can move on, or if some are struggling and need to review the material, Tedorski said.

“Technology can be interactive the way a textbook can't,” Koedinger said.

But it's about more than just hardware. Schools also need good, quality software, and training for teachers in using it.

“If you just give the kids the computers and expect magic to happen and don't do those other two things, that's a waste of money,” Koedinger said.

Budgeting for technology

Paying for technology — the hardware, software, infrastructure, training and support staff — can pose a challenge for school districts coping with rising costs such as pension contributions and health care.

Sometimes, districts will work the costs into building renovation projects, including technology systems alongside boilers and roofs.

But, for the most part, districts have to spend local property tax money to pay for it, said Jeff Ammerman, director of member assistance for the Pennsylvania Association of School Business Officials, and a former school district business manager.

“Most districts have to phase this in over time,” he said. “Like any other priority in a school district, you have to figure out how we get from where we're at to where we want to be.”

With technology budgets growing, additions there can require cuts elsewhere.

“If we're going to spend more in a particular area, can we spend less in another area? Sometimes the answer is yes, sometimes it's no,” Ammerman said.

Instead of buying textbooks for every child, Kiski Area gets sets for the classroom that must be shared and puts the money saved toward Chromebooks, Tedorski said.

The Google-based laptops “provide a very cost-effective way to put an electronic device in a student's hands that needs very little maintenance,” he said.

Prioritizing has been key at Freeport Area School District, where Superintendent Ian Magness said the district has made technology upgrades and improvements while not increasing its technology spending.

“We've been responsive to taxpayers in that regard,” Magness said.

Highlands had cut its technology spending during budget problems in 2009 and, at one point, all technology had been removed from the district's primary schools, Superintendent Michael Bjalobok said.

Rebuilding that has been a priority for Bjalobok. This year, teachers are getting new laptop computers and new Chromebooks are going into the primary, elementary and middle schools.

That will be followed next year by the rollout of a one-to-one program at the high school, he said.

“We're in a world where technology is all around us. Sometimes the kids come in and are already familiar with it,” Bjalobok said. “We want to level the playing field for kids who don't have that technology so all kids have opportunities.”

Brian C. Rittmeyer is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 724-226-4701 or at brittmeyer@tribweb.com.

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