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Investment in tech paying off for AC schools

Getting Google “Chromebook” computers in the hands of every student is a priority for the Anderson County School District.

And no one knows this better than Anderson County School District Director of Technology Johanna Whitley, who has been a major figure in seeing the school district upgrade its technology to accommodate the arrival of the Chromebooks.

The goal is called the One-to-One Initiative, and school systems statewide are implementing the initiative, school officials say.

“Technology enhances a child’s ability to learn and a teacher’s ability to teach,” Whitley said at the school board retreat earlier this month.

The school district has equipped every middle school student from grades 6 to 8 with a Chromebook as part of the One-to-One Initiative.

“One-to-One means one device per student,” Whitley explained, adding that student enrollment in the middle schools is currently 1,600.

According to Whitley, it took the district’s technology department approximately six months to prepare and to coordinate equipping each middle schooler in the district with a Chromebook to use all three years they attend middle school.

The first step in preparing to implement the technology was re-wiring the middle schools and upgrading connectivity and bandwidth in all the schools.

“We had to re-wire all the middle schools in order to make this happen. In addition to the middle schools, we plan to have all of our schools in the district re-wired for stronger wireless connectivity that will support One-to-One by June 30,” Whitley said.

The devices are expected to last up to four years.

“We think we can get about four years of use out of at least 80 percent of the Chromebooks. We plan to get as much use out of them as we possibly can,” added Dr. Tim Parrott, district superintendent.

A statement on Anderson County School District’s website describing the benefits of going digital via Chromebook relates that the implementation of devices focuses on three major goals: improving classroom instruction, offering students a device required for online state mandated testing, and offering students access to a device that will launch “the new and upcoming online textbooks.”

The district’s eventual goal is to provide students in all grade levels a digital device that will allow educators to implement “a one-to-one personalized and blended learning environment,” the website states.

School officials say the cost of funding the devices will be offset with the reduction of traditional textbook purchases.

“We know next year we won’t have to buy as many textbooks, so we’re hoping we can pull some of that money for textbooks out of our budget to pay for Chromebooks,” Dr. Parrott said.

Officials also expect the price of the devices to go down in value each year.

“Right now we have in our budget about $250,000 for technology. Going forward, we need to start setting aside $50,000 a year in our budget for technology,” Parrott said.

Starting with the 2017-2018 school year, the district plans to put the devices in the hands of even more students.

Currently, only middle school students are using Chromebooks, but the plan is to provide every student in grades 9 through 12 in both the high schools a device, Whitley said.

About 2,350 devices will be added at the high school—that is, if enough funding is made available.

There is a price tag associated with this—and it is not cheap.

According to Whitley, the projected total cost to fund the One-to-One Initiative in grades 9 through 12 at all high schools, including CRCS, is $798, 320.

The cost of Chromebook cases will be approximately $70,440, which is included in the projected total cost. The cost of the Chromebooks themselves will cost around $727,880.

The Chromebook cases, said Whitley, are essential and well worth the cost because they protect the Chromebooks from potential damage.

Whitley reported to the board she expects the bids to come in below those figures.

“We bought 1,600 devices last year, and we’re hoping to buy about 2,400 this year. I’m expecting to negotiate a better price from the vendor,” she said.

In addition, the district applied for E-Rate Funding, a federal program that assists libraries and schools with paying for technology infrastructure, and was recently approved to receive an almost one million dollar reimbursement for upgrading connectivity, bandwidth, and wiring in the schools, Whitley said.

“Wiring is underway at Clinton High School and Claxton Elementary and will begin at Anderson County High School in the next few weeks. We plan to have Clinton High School, Claxton Elementary, Anderson County High School, Andersonville Elementary School, Briceville Elementary School, Dutch Valley Elementary School, Fairview Elementary School, Lake City Elementary School, Norris Elementary School, and Norwood Elementary School all updated within the next 120 days. When we are finished, all the schools will be upgraded to support the one-to-one program,” she said.

The district opted to use the Google Chromebook for instruction based on its affordability and performance.

“They cost about the third of a price for a laptop, are easy for educators and students to use, and are reliable testing tools. The Chromebook tests better than any other device. We had no problems with any of the Chromebooks last year during testing,” Whitley said.

Whitley asserted that it was the school board and administration’s decision to purchase the Chromebooks in the middle schools that helped increase middle school enrollment this year.

She further noted how the new technology has had a positive effect on students

“The impact that has been made with these devices has far exceeded my expectations. I knew it was going to be big, but putting Chromebooks in the hands of these middle schoolers has been life-changing for some of them, and it has blessed my heart,” Whitley said.