Baltimore County schools Superintendent Dallas Dance plans to issue digital devices to middle- and high-school students and wants all children in the school system to graduate bilingual, believing it will make them globally competitive, he said in the county's first state of the schools address Thursday.
"Earning a Baltimore County public schools diploma needs to have greater meaning," he told a crowd at Valley Mansion in Cockeysville.
The superintendent hopes to see kindergartners learning world languages and older students carrying electronic devices within the next five years, he said in an interview Thursday. He said he's unsure of what type of electronic tools that students would get because technology changes so quickly.
"There have been some school systems that have just put devices in the hands of kids, and I'm not interested in doing that," said Dance, adding that the schools must plan for the digital infrastructure needed to support the plan. "We want to make sure that teachers are prepared before kids get it."
Dance said he can't yet estimate the cost of his plans, but noted that the system spends $20 million a year on instructional materials and resources. He envisions students using electronic devices instead of textbooks.
The speech was energizing, said Abby Beytin, president of the Teachers Association of Baltimore County, but funding remains a question. She said she agreed with many of Dance's ideas but wonders where the money will come from.
"The big issue has to do with funding," she said. "As a society and a county, we're going have to decide to spend the money to do the educating that we need to do."
Dance said technology isn't "just about having the latest and greatest," adding that it can also help "level the playing field," which is the role of public schools.
"There is still a digital divide between those who have access to computers and the Internet and those who don't," he said.
But, he added, "I know firsthand that technology is just a tool. Nothing will replace excellent teachers."
Dance wants to start foreign language instruction in elementary school, rather than middle school. Those language skills will help students find better jobs and earn more income for the rest of their lives, he said.
"This nation is even more diverse than it's ever been but most importantly, Baltimore County is more diverse than it's ever been," he said.
Minorities make up more than 55 percent of the school system's 107,000 students.
His address also touched on alternative education, safety and increasing communication with the community.
More than 1,000 people attended the speech, including students, administrators, government officials and parents. The event featured musical performances, art displays and speeches by students from around the county.
McCall Behringer, a Perry Hall High School senior who plans to study communications at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, called the speech motivational. She liked the emphasis on world languages, she said, because the nation is becoming more diverse.
"In a foreign language class, you don't just learn about the language. You learn about the customs and culture," she said.
Duvall Howard, a senior at Woodlawn High, said technology could help teens feel more connected with their classes.
"It's definitely a good way to integrate school into the everyday life of a teenager," said Howard, who plans to attend community college and then transfer to Towson University to study psychology and French.
But he echoed Dance's remark that technology can't supplant a good teacher.