Harford schools doing 'disservice' to students without adequate technology

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If the Harford County public school system doesn’t provide students now with tools they’re going to be using daily in the future, it is doing a “great disservice” to those young people it is trying to educate, school board members said at their meeting Monday night.

“There are a great number of our students who have graduated in the last year or two, who are going to start a job where they’re going to be handed a tablet computer. … they’re going to be expected to be comfortable with how to use it as a daily tool for business,” board member Tom Fitzpatrick said. “Not familiarizing them with that, not putting them in an academic environment where [the device] becomes an everyday tool of life — like papers or pencils or draft paper was when I was a kid — ... is a disservice.”

Harford schools currently don’t have enough devices to go around, but part of its long-term goal is to have one technology device for each student through a program called “One to One.” The school system is implementing its first year of a five-year plan to reach that goal, according to Joe Licata, chief of administration. Students in grades five and eight will begin this year using school-issued tablets that convert into tablets.

The school system is seeking $14,772,000 in local funding next year as part of a technology system refresh that includes providing students in grades four and six with technology. The local funding is a portion of its $101,817,858 total Fiscal Year 2019 Capital Improvement Program request, which was approved 9-0 by the Harford County Board of Education Monday. Board member Al Williamson was absent.

The technology goal is being driven in large part by the PARCC tests, which the state is mandating be taken on computer rather than pen and paper.

It is the school system’s third highest priority, behind special education facility improvements ($1,066,000 in local funds) and a Havre de Grace Middle/High School replacement ($11,544,000 in state funding and $32,287,000 in local funding).

The list includes six other critical needs: Bel Air Elementary School HVAC systemic renovation and open space enclosure; emergency systems and communications; Fallston Middle School replacement chiller; 40 replacement buses; and Aberdeen Middle School roof replacement, according to Drew Moore, director of technology. Other projects that are part of the funding request (of 37 total) are identified as potential critical needs, necessary needs and recommended needs.

In addition to new tablets for the two grades, the $14.8 million technology refresh includes $1.7 million to refresh core equipment; $4.8 million to replace the school system’s phone system; $207,000 to replace ailing projectors; $64,000 for an auditorium sound modification at Aberdeen High; and an auditorium sound and video modification at North Harford High School.

Before the board voted on the CIP request, board member Robert Frisch, as he has at previous meetings, warned his fellow board members about committing to a such a significant financial undertaking when it’s not sure it will have the money in future years to fund the purchase of so much technology.

“I caution my colleagues about making a long-term commitment, moving to One to One, when there are plenty of unresolved issues over the validity of such a purchase,” Frisch said.

He questioned whether One to One is really necessary in every classroom in every grade, or if the school system could buy just enough computers for PARCC testing.

“Can we accomplish our goal without diving in to a long-term budget hole we commit to by having One to One for every student in every classroom?” he asked.

His colleagues quickly replied that new technology is imperative for today’s students.

Board member Jansen Robinson said he watches his grandchildren, who are toddlers, operate iPads and cell phones. If they can operate those devices today, what happens when they get to kindergarten and aren’t given the opportunity to use devices they’ve already been using at home, he asked.

“I think about what kind of school system we are building for the future, for my grandkids, your grandkids. If we don’t act today when we have the opportunity, when do we act? We have to find the will and the way to make this happen,” Robinson said. “We are building a system, we are trying to attract people to our community, to our school system and to the extent we cannot offer a state-of-the-art, world class education, we are going our children and our children’s children, a disservice.”

Board member Nancy Reynolds said using technology is not only teaching academics, it’s teaching lifelong skills. And they need those tools from the beginning so they can graduate and become successful.

Superintendent Barbara Canavan said it’s the school system’s job to provide the technology for its students.

“Whether it becomes One to One, two to one, as long as they have access to technology, we are being fair with them. We want them to be competitive globally,” Canavan said. “At the same time, there are many debates on what is thrown out in lieu of technology. Nothing is. It’s not that we’re going to replace teachers or all the good strategies or technologies we know work with the students, it’s only going to enhance it.”

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