When summer break ends, Baton Rouge public school students in grades five to eight will have a gift waiting for them: an 11-inch Chromebook.
The East Baton Rouge Parish school system is spending $3.5 million to buy 12,805 of the $200 laptops. That’s enough for 10,000-plus students, hundreds of teachers and hundreds of spares. The plan is to expand a grade at a time, starting next year with ninth grade. Meanwhile, computers no longer needed are being moved to bolster technology in third and fourth grades.
An assembly line of school technology staff are spending their summer unboxing and readying these computers at a rate of about 750 a day. The goal is to have them all ready for the start of the school year on Aug. 10. The school system is also using its federal e-rate money to expand wireless internet to every school and on track to finish by December.
Unlike other local school districts, most notably Ascension Parish, which allows students to take their computers home, these new Chromebooks will remain on school grounds. Initially, they are to stay in the same room all day. The idea is to limit repair and replacement costs that come when the devices are taken home or lugged around.
Jake Ragusa, director of technology for Ascension Parish public schools, said East Baton Rouge is tackling a lot in a short amount of time.
“That’s an immense rollout,” Ragusa said. “We’ve never done anything that big.”
Over nearly a decade, Ascension Parish purchased computers for every student in grades six to 12; it later added fifth grade. The most devices it’s ever bought at any one time is about 3,000, Ragusa said.
East Baton Rouge school officials have said little-to-nothing publicly until now about its Chromebook initiative.
Deputy Superintendent Michelle Clayton said school officials have been mulling a districtwide one-to-one laptop purchase for awhile. In a district where a vast majority of students come from poor backgrounds, schools need to help level the technological playing field if students hope to do well in college and succeed in careers, she said.
“You want to make sure you have those state-of-the art 21st century learning environments for the students,” Clayton said.
She said she’s been planning to do a presentation soon to the School Board but was first finalizing how to train teachers on the new laptops. Superintendent Warren Drake selected Richard Ellis as the school system’s technology director in July 2015, Clayton said, in part because in his previous job as director of technology in Iberville Parish, Ellis presided over that school system’s one-to-one laptop program.
The decision to pull the trigger came after the state Department of Education released in late March an updated standardized testing schedule for the 2016-17 school year, Clayton said.
The state made clear that all students in grades five to eight will have to take tests on computers next spring, while those in third and fourth grade can still take them using pencil and paper.
Getting them ready for online tests involves making sure they are familiar with the process.
Last fall, her staff, during visits to elementary classrooms, visited found that a quarter of teachers weren’t using technology at all.
Clayton said the $3.5 million to purchase the Chromebooks is coming from unspent technology funds in several 2015-16 budgets.
Ellis said the laptops are being purchased through a cooperative organized by Bossier Parish public schools, which handled the legal purchasing requirement. East Baton Rouge signed on with Bossier last fall, but Ellis said he did not submit his first large order of laptops until May 25.
Ellis said he likes Chromebooks for several reasons: they are relatively inexpensive; they have a long battery life of upwards of 10 hours; and they rely on free cloud storage, meaning there is little saved on the actual devices and are consequently easier to maintain.
While cost is a factor, it was not the only factor, he said.
“An inexpensive device is only good if it does the job,” Ellis said.
The school system also is purchasing 427 charging carts for the laptops at a cost of $1,330 apiece. Each cart holds up to 30 laptops, enough for the average middle school classroom. Ellis said he’s hiring seven more computer technicians to handle the additional repair load.
Through the years, Ascension Parish has tried a variety of mobile computers, starting with Apple Macbooks, then iPads, then Dell Notebooks, and now Chromebooks.
Ragusa said he rolled out the Chromebooks last year in fifth grade at Central Middle. The other middle schools quickly demanded their own, he said, and this year they’ll have them.
“Had I not moved them to other middle schools this year I would have caught major grief,” he said.
One “rookie mistake,” though, was at first buying traditional laptops like the ones East Baton Rouge is buying, instead of spending a little more for laptops with touch screens. Ragusa said he’s buying only touch screens from now on.
“The teachers and students were much happier with the touch screens,” Ragusa said.
Clayton said all teachers who teach core subjects will have to complete training this summer before they can use the Chromebooks. And students undergo some initial training as well.
Still undecided is whether East Baton Rouge will follow the lead of some districts and charge a student fee. While students and parents are likely to sign some kind of usage contract, Clayton said she’s leaning against requiring a fee.
Ascension requires all students pay a $20 “damage protection” fee to help pay for repairs, though it does not cover theft of computers.
West Feliciana Parish schools used to require a similar fee of about $40, but dropped it when it moved to Chromebooks. Superintendent Hollis Milton said that was partly because the district also decided to quit letting students bring the laptops home, making repairs bills less expensive.
Milton suggested school districts that buy laptops for every student think through how to make the best use of them. For instance, students can be easily distracted if teachers aren’t clear about the point of a lesson where computers are employed.
“Technology can be a tangent if you’re not careful with it,” he said.