Central Unified hopes to avoid LA's tablet problem

The Fresno BeeNovember 3, 2013 

Herndon-Barstow Elementary principal Leah Spate, far left, and Larry Elkinton. far right, delve into the use of tablets as Adriana Castillo, second from left, offers help with installing an application for Whitney Mooneyham, third from left, during an Elementary Collaboration workshop held for Central Unified School District teachers on Sept. 26, 2013 in Fresno.

ERIC PAUL ZAMORA — THE FRESNO BEE Buy Photo

As Central Unified School District rolls out its new tablets-for-students program, administrators say they're determined to avoid budget problems and hasty decisions plaguing Los Angeles Unified, which aimed to give each of its students an iPad this year.

This fall, each of 900 teachers and staff at the Fresno school district got an Asus tablet. The district's 15,000 kids will have their own hand-held device next year: they'll be allowed to take the tablets home, use them instead of hard-bound textbooks and eventually take new computerized state tests on the device.

Central Superintendent Mike Berg said he hopes to avoid the string of problems L.A. Unified is dealing with under its new $1 billion iPad program that include students hacking through firewalls, stolen devices and unexpected costs.

According to the Los Angeles Times, the issues have drawn public scrutiny in recent months from the Southern California district's school board and others worried about unanticipated costs, like service fees and taxes, and whether the technology project was too much, too soon.

"We didn't make the same mistakes as L.A.," Berg said. "It doesn't appear they did much, if any, community outreach, Board of Trustee informational sessions, or had any real hard and fast strategic plan when they bought these cool, shiny devices."

So what's the difference at Central? Berg said long-term planning is key.

The district has been holding quarterly meetings with parents about the project, he said, which has been in the works for more than two years. Two additional town hall meetings are planned between now and April, which Berg said will help families get used to the idea of the tablets.

Teachers are getting the devices first, which district officials say will help smooth the transition for students next year.

A teacher at Central High School's east campus called the process "painfully slow."

"But that painfully slow (process) may turn out to be the best approach of all," said Janet Wile, teacher-librarian at the high school.

Berg says the district also is treading carefully when it comes to security. For example, Berg said, Central has had to figure out how to keep kids from accessing adult content online, like pornography websites.

The tablets come equipped with two firewalls. One blocks youngsters from adult sites while they're surfing the web during school hours. The other acts as an alert system: if a student tinkers with the firewall or goes to inappropriate sites at home, district technology staff get flagged and can shut down the tablet remotely.

Another challenge, Berg said, is how the district will deal with stolen, lost or broken equipment. Ultimately it will be up to parents to replace a misplaced tablet, he said, just like they would for a textbook.

A replacement could cost up to $150.

In all, the district is spending about $2.4 million upfront for the devices. General fund money and extra state dollars the district is getting this year are paying for the project.

The tablets each come with a 4G wireless AT&T service plan, which costs about $3 per tablet monthly. That's an 84% discount over regular plans, Berg said, and totals about $572,000 yearly.

Berg said they chose to work with Asus because the company's devices are user-friendly and relatively cheap — about $620 less than the iPads chosen by L.A. Unified. Compared to the price of textbooks, which could run up to $200 each, Berg said the tablets make financial sense.

The district did not take bids for the touch-screens, but Berg said AT&T did win a competitive proposal process.

Central's technology push is one of the biggest in the Valley.

Fresno Unified spokeswoman Susan Bedi said some students will start piloting a device in November that could be used for new state tests.

Sanger Unified students also are piloting about 1,000 iPads this year as the district prepares for new electronic state tests.

And Clovis Unified has a small-scale laptop program, which district spokeswoman Kelly Avants said gives a computer to certain students in grades six through eight.

But because Central's goal was to replace the traditional textbook model, it was important to give each child a tablet, said Laurel Ashlock, assistant superintendent and chief academic officer.

To make a complete shift from hard-bound books, the district is working with textbook publishers including Houghton Mifflin Harcourt to create interactive lesson plans.

Students can look forward to a lot more than just a digital version of a book, Ashlock said.

For example, if a student is struggling with an algebra problem, Berg said, the digital lesson plans will point them in the right direction.

"It will pop up a little cloud and say, 'Check this lesson, or try this or try that,' or take them to the fourth-grade lesson to get a tutorial on multiplication and division," he said.

But the project already has hit stumbling blocks.

New state standardized tests aren't yet compatible with the tablets, and teachers say they're having trouble using them in the classroom.

Trish Morgutia, Madison Elementary teacher, said teachers don't yet have the correct cord to connect a tablet to their classroom projector. But she said administrators have been quick to make fixes: the cords are ordered and soon will be on their way to teachers.

"It's like anything, there are going to be bumps in the road," she said. "They think they have all these things worked out, they're trying to see what problems other districts are doing, but there are just things that are going to happen."

Central's technology push is one of the biggest in the Valley.

The reporter can be reached at (559) 441-6412, hfurfaro@fresnobee.com or @hannahfurfaro on Twitter.

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