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Livingston BOE Talks Technology at Meeting

Jackie Goldman-Schatell

Tuesday, May 20, 2014 • 6:32am

LIVINGSTON, NJ – Technology was the hot topic discussed at Monday’s Board of Education meeting.

At the May 13 BOE meeting, TAP of Livingston reported that Assistant Superintendent of Curriculum and Instruction Mary Oates and acting interim Superintendent Steven Robinson discussed the hiring of an outside educational consultant to help the district implement new technical equipment at all levels.

At that meeting, Oates and Robinson also estimated the need for 1,000 Google Chromebooks to be purchased for use in PARCC (Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers) Testing for next year. They also said that the district has been experimenting with testing by using desktops, laptops and Chromebooks this year.

Click HERE to read about the May 13 meeting.

In response to the May 13 meeting, the Livingston High School auditorium was crowded with concerned parents this week—many of whom went on record voicing their concerns.

To start the meeting, Stephen K. Robinson, acting superintendent, Livingston Public Schools (LPS) gave some parameters regarding the technology consultant that LPS intends to hire, and said that the board has already received three proposals. He also shared some of the board’s expectations regarding the Educational Technology Consultant’s duties, which included:

  • Survey and analyze the effectiveness of the current status of technology integration into various curricula at different grade levels.
  • Create a vision that allows for additional opportunities for technology integration into various curricula at different grade levels.
  • Create a tiered professional development plan with the following goals:
    • Instruct staff members on the use of technology hardware,
    • Instruct staff members on the use of a variety of software applications, and
    • Model current technology integration opportunities for staff members at different grade levels.
    • Work with the stakeholders in the LPS community in the development of a vision for educational technology within the District.
    • Review current inventory of technological devices and facilities and recommend items that are needed in accordance with the established vision.
    • Analyze the strengths, opportunities and issues that face the current status of educational technology at LPS.
    • Survey the current landscape of technology being utilized in districts with similar socio-economic populations.
    • Recommend technology priorities for the next three to five years and identify priorities with financial impacts.

Livingston resident, Sage Blinderman said, “Thank you for listening to us and the fact that you are implementing a plan, and I can also appreciate that there is still a learning curve in the country, but feel we are very late to the party.”

Blinderman also had comments about the technology consultant being hired and asked, “How long they are being evaluated?”

The Board said they have to be hired by August 1, and that they hope to announce who is hired by the next board meeting. Robinson said he received three proposals on Monday, and is hoping for two more to come in during the next few days.

Next, Blinderman said, “While some teachers are doing advanced technology in their classrooms, there are some who do not. While some schools have dedicated computer labs, some do not. While some teachers are using technology, some are not. I believe each class should have a cart of Ipads for projects, all teachers should be instructed on how best to use these devices, and every student should be able to get the same advantages. There should be equity among the schools. I know this is what they are doing in neighboring towns. Our children deserve to be competitive. We are already so far behind and we need to make these changes now. This is Livingston. We are known to be ahead of the curve and we really need to start acting like it.”

Andrea Hoffman said, “I have a second grader at Burnet Hill and she has been one of the lucky students this year that has had plenty of access to technology. She has learned how to do the everyday tasks of post-it noting when she reads, and she doesn’t use paper anymore—she puts it into an electronic format, and all of her classmates do the same thing. This was very teacher directed. And I am not here to say my child hasn’t had access. I am saying she has, but the kids in the other two classes in the same second grade don’t have access and I don’t think that’s really fair that there is a parity across the board for all these kids because they are still using pen and ink. And pen and ink has a place too, but these kids need to have access to the technology.”

She added, “I appreciate the fact that we are going to talk to a consultant, and we are going to go through this whole formal process but as all of us know, consultants cost a lot of money, and consultants complicate things, take a lot of time that we don’t really have to waste, so I think we can kind of simplify it a little bit and instead of making sweeping curriculum changes, we just need to have a very simple paradigm shift between the way they currently do something so they can do it electronically. Like in my daughter’s class, they write their virtual post-its on line and they create virtual cork boards, using an Ipad to do just what they are doing now. The teacher is very willing to help embrace technology among her peers and I think we should let her do that. There is a place for this to be integrated into the whole PARCC preparation, but I don’t think that should be our whole focus. I think we can simplify this and we need to start putting money toward this and keep it simple at first until people can start getting comfortable. The teachers need mandatory training on this—not optional training. This is part of their job. This is how they stay current. I have to go for training in my job—it’s not optional for me, so it needs to be mandatory for the teachers as well. And, as far as that statistic you said about two students to one device, I am really not aware of how that can be possible because in our school, the HSA paid for the smart boards through our fundraising, and I believe we donated the Ipads that my daughter’s class is using. So, I am curious where the two to one number is coming from and is that across the board?

Robinson said, “It is actually 2.05. In each school we have classroom desktops, computers on carts, Ipads, and more. I have a chart. I can go school by school. We actually have to report this on the school report card that we submit to the state.”

Hoffman asked, “What qualifies as a device?”

Robinson said, “A classroom desktop, computer lab and media center, computers on carts, a tablet, and a mac. At your school you have no macs, but you have some tablets, computers on carts, computers in labs and media centers, and classroom desktops.”

Hoffman asked, “Is there any statistic about how much time each student gets on these devices because just once a week is not going to cut it. They need daily access. I went to the public Core meeting that was just held, which was very interesting, and they said a lot of the curriculum, especially for the English language program, is going to be research based and students are going to need to be able to substantiate it with fact finding constantly, all the time. Nobody is using encyclopedias any more—they are using the internet, so how much time do our kids really get on these devices if you are saying there is just a two to one ratio? Just this week, there was a bit of a disagreement between the three second grade teachers because they thought they were going to divide the 25 tablets that they had by the three classrooms. That would leave seven for each class, which means that no classroom would really benefit because you’d have a bunch of kids gathered around a tablet instead of each class getting all of them for an hour or two each day. So, that number two to one doesn’t seem to jive with what we are actually seeing.”

Barry Funt asked Robinson for the Burnet Hill breakdown, which was as reported follows: 62 classroom desktops, 33 computer labs and media centers, 65 computers on carts, 26 tablets, with a total for devices of 186. He said with 457 students, that ratio is 2.46.

A representative from Burnet Hill said, “The children use the devices every day because we have two classroom computers and we have carts, in addition to the computer labs, they go through on a six-day rotation.”

She added, “Just to clarify, the Ipads that were purchased, were not purchased by the HSA. You were kind enough to buy us SMART Boards, which was a huge expense, but all of the other devices were provided by the district or money that I manage in my building. The kids are on them all the time. The grade levels share the devises by classroom. The idea is flexibility. Tech flexibility—the kids can go from a tablet to a keyboard, to a piece of paper to a post it, to a station, to a recording. That’s the model that the research supports, so I don’t necessarily have an expectation that second grade teachers are duking it out over how many Ipads we have, but I am more interesting that they know there are many devices to choose from. Children are using the devices in the media centers in the classrooms, the computer lab, in Spanish class and art class— so lots of people share lots of devices. We do have a lot of devices.”

Hoffman asked, “Do you think there is parity among the classes as far as who is using the technology on a daily basis.”

The Burnet Hill rep said, “I think that there is a very consistent message. We provide professional development to the teachers, but we have to try things out and roll them out. The people in charge of this go out and model and coach. There has to be some opportunity to pilot things and try them and see how they go.”

Funt said, “It is very clear that no one is satisfied at where we are at. We can do better and that is why we are looking to get some assistance to move forward rather than stay status quo.”

Melissa Pritsiolas said, “This is not a Burnet Hill issue, we are very happy with our school. We are very happy with our teachers. We are very happy with our principal.”

Doug Greenwald said, “For the 2.5 computers—are all of them working at every time? How many of them are out of service? How many need updating with firmware and software? I know one of the complaints I get from my 14 and 11 year olds is that they are really slow or they are not working—and, that’s when they can get to them.”

He was answered by the Township’s current head of technology with, “Certainly, at any given time there are going to be computers that stop working. They are all five years old or less. They are mostly windows machines, so they get windows updates periodically, and they get anti-virus updates periodically. I can’t say that every computer in the district is working all the time. It is impossible. We try to minimize the number of computers that are down. Typically, the classroom computers are up and more reliable. We have a little bit less reliability with the laptops because kids can turn the virus protection off.”

Seth Marx said, “I have two kids at Burnet Hill and we have an amazing principal, staff and teachers, and a great Board. Being on the Board, some of you—its your job and some of you volunteer and it is a tough job that you all have. Although we may go through conversations that are tough, I know that in our toughest moments, we appreciate all of the work that you all do.”

He added, “On the technology front, I want to share some of the frustration that has been part of our HSA meetings. And, some of the  things said here illuminated this and hiring a consultant sort of brings it to a head because we all know that there was research and studies done to craft a vision for technology in the schools and in our curriculum. So, one of the things we talk about is the desire to have more information and transparency around these plans. It sounds like in the rhetoric that the consultant will be starting from scratch. But our goal is that the consultant gets to inherit some of the information and progress that has already been made on this topic and so we want to understand how the baton is being passed. We want to know what elements of what has already been discussed would be retained in the plan moving forward, and we also want to know how this will all be tracked. We have also talked about budget. So, for a consultant who comes on board, with an August deadline—that’s not too much time for them to work with—certainly to ramp up a budget to enable some of the expenditures to bring this up to speed within the neighboring towns with similar demographics. What steps are we taking now to ramp up that budget and along these lines—are there funds that have already been allocated to the technology plan that are unspent and what is the plan around those funds? So, those are some of the questions. Many of us feel that you don’t have to throw out the baby after the bathwater at all because we have a lot of good information and good minds working on this and our hope is that we are continuing that work and moving on this front pretty quickly, but not recklessly.”

He was answered by Robinson with, “There is certainly a lot of talent, and we need somebody to get that talent to a conclusion. We have money in the technology budget, and we may have to shift some things to adhere to the recommendations, but we have money set aside. According to how much is going to cost, again, I have three proposals and they are from one end of the scope to the other and I am not sure which one we will end up with. We don’t have to take the lowest bidder. So, we will actually have conversations with the companies making the proposals prior to making the recommendations. They have a lot of variables in their proposals that we have to work out as they don’t have all of our information including consulting past their proposals and other variables of professional development. Again, we have to look at them, review with them, and then we will come to a recommendation.”

The board said that the immediacy of the situation was shared with the people making proposals and that once they are chosen and make the initial plan, they will meet with all of the stakeholders, learn where we are with everything and know they have to move ahead quickly. This will be done in August once this person is awarded the contract.

Chani Levine said she was there as a parent and fifth grade teacher at Hillside and that she wanted to add to the technology discussion. She said, “Hillside is a great school—one of the best, but one area where the teachers struggle greatly is in technology. It is really a district problem, but I can speak factually about Hillside. Yes, we have desktops in our classrooms. But at any given time, maybe one or one and a half are functioning. We have a mobile laptop cart for the upper grades, and out of that cart I would venture to say that the age of most of the laptops is eight years old. The software is outdated completely. We cannot even use the latest and greatest in our classrooms. We try to do PowerPoints where we incorporate technology into our classes and unfortunately, it doesn’t work. In that mobile laptop cart with the 20 laptops—over ten of them do not work. That’s for fourth and fifth grade, and it has been that way for over a year. These laptops have gone unfixed.”

She added, “It is really hard to try to incorporate technology when you have technology that doesn’t work. We do have a beautiful computer lab that is utilized by the media specialist to do keyboarding classes and other media-related curriculum. She has the right to use that lab, but it is very hard to get extra time to bring my classes in there. I teach three sections of the same course—US History, and you cannot get the classes into the computer lab, there is just no time. Therefore, we have to find other ways to teach. It is a shame that we can’t use that technology to do research projects. I mean, my subject alone, totally lends itself to technology and I can’t use technology. We have to tell kids to print things at home and bring them in because the color printers don’t work in the school. It is absolutely unacceptable.”

“I have one son who goes to school, in this district and one that goes outside the district and I see what they do in his public school district and their technology is far better than ours,” said Levine. “I have spoken to friends who teach in lesser performing districts in NJ, and they are at least five years ahead of us in technology. Now, I am not talking about the PARCC test because I know we are required to do what we have to do for the test, I am talking about daily instruction where we do not have acceptable technology, nor do we have time slots where we can bring the kids in. The teachers want to incorporate technology. There is not any teacher who has resisted this—it is the fact that it is outdated, it doesn’t work, we don’t have enough, and having laptops that don’t work for over a year is unacceptable. Some are literally missing letter keys. I am speaking factually based from Hillside school. I want to know what we are going to do to fix this at a quicker rate than we are doing right now?”

Justin Alpert said, “I do know that the Governor sends his kids to Delbarton and at $38,000 a year, the standard is a one-to-one ratio.”

He added, “As you guys look to set the standard, I ask you to do that—set the standard. You will have the support of the community. Set the standard for the state—whatever it costs. I highly suggest that you coordinate with the towns of Westfield and Summit. Why? Because the governor’s education policies are being flushed down the toilet. Corporate takeover in the schools is going away. Last week, the Education Committee voted eight to zero to take the teeth out of the PARCC exam next year. And, by the way, with respect to standardized testing, even the students think it is pointless, the parents think it is pointless, the teachers think it is pointless, the administrators think it is pointless, the boards think it is pointless, and you just lost the entire community.”

He added, “Let’s set new standards. And, the reason you should coordinate with someone in Westfield and Summit is because if you get those two districts, you actually get Senator Kean and Assemblyman Bramnick, and can set policy across the state, against the governor’s policy, and set policy on a national basis. If you are looking to set policy around technology, it shouldn’t just be around testing. Make sure you include coding—we are in the 21st century. My kids haven’t learned one lick of coding. And they should be learning that from the beginning. It shouldn’t just be about Microsoft Word. It should be about creative applications. It should be about Photoshop, and web development, and Illustrator.

"And, I have to tell you that the resignation of Christopher Cerf was the governor folding his hands with respect to all the policies that he was trying to implement over the course of the past four and a half years,” added Alpert. “There is now a vacuum of leadership in the state. Livingston needs to fill that and set the standard. Reach out to other communities and set the standards.”

“With the election in Newark the other day, it was a complete rejection of the governor’s policies,” he added. “As we set the standards, let’s think about what the cost is for the urban districts and the outer districts to also follow us as we set the standards to they can reach for the same standards as well.”

Stephanie Lichtstein said, “My girls are students at Collins and I am one of the lucky ones because we have had technology-based teachers. My girls are blogging and doing a great job, but I think the survey you did at two and a half per student needs to be reevaluated to how many are being utilized and how many are working. You can say you have six desktops, but if one isn’t working then that survey means nothing. So, I think you really need to look at that. I also think as a rotating basis for elementary schools that maybe technology needs to be a new special because I think these kids need a lot more than they are getting.”

Steve Shaiman said, “I really appreciate all of the comments that were made about technology, it is something I always felt was a weakness in our district, and I think it should be pointed out to people that we have been building up a bank of under-capped on our budgets. I think now that we see we have a real need we should aggressively use those funds, and if necessary, to have a referendum so that we can have the best technology in the state—bottom line. I hope the budget season will be extended as we talked about in a previous board meeting, as far as board transparency and budget hearings, perhaps, to let people know exactly what is going into the budget and we can see how much support there is for these things.”

Carlos Suarez said, “I am formerly of the Bronx, and the reason I can say “of Livingston” now is because someone in sixth grade put a computer in front of me, showed me BASIC, and then from there in seventh grade to ninth grades, I was learning more, and by tenth grade I was programming. When I went to college, I already knew C programming and this was back in 1982-1985. Now, I can’t believe that I am here and I heard someone say they don’t teach coding in Livingston. I also checked the website and didn’t see anything about coding and it shocked me. If that didn’t happen to me back in 1982, I don’t know where I’d be now. I moved here because they told me the district school system here was great. My kids are at Burnet Hill and I love the school and the principal and everything is great, but I can’t believe that in the future my kids or anyone won’t get a chance to at and at least try coding. They may not like it, but they should to get a look at it to give it a try and see it it is something they can use in the future. Our future nowadays is technology—everything is going to be computers and not to know at least a little of it is shocking. Even in college, they get a little Pascal. I took it in high school and got credit for it. I can’t believe that in this district that is not even available. That is shocking to me.”

Robin Levine said, “I wanted to thank you guys because you listened to what we said at the last board meeting and clearly you have taken action. I do have a question on rotating the computers. Are you planning on rotating them within the schools or amongst the schools?”

The board said they are looking at both and that “For example, if we purchase Chromebooks, in the elementary world, there would probably one cart per grade level so they can rotate in that particular building for those grade levels, but then we’d also be also looking at a variety of those carts to move around the schools. I guess closer to the testing, we would need to be able to service a large number of students at one time, so we would probably be moving them around the schools then as well. It depends on how many devices we actually do purchase.”

Levine said, “For me, it’s not about the PARCC. I don’t really care about it to be honest with you. My child will be taking it because I don’t think I should be teaching him that opting out because I don’t believe in something is an option, but I do want to make sure you are committed to getting technology to our schools because that is the way our world is going and that is really what we are so behind in—not because of the PARCC testing.”

Funt said, “This is the good part of the public session and we will look it these issues right away. We are glad you shared that with us. There is no one here that says that is fine.”

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