The Harford County Board of Education approved last week the purchase of 380 new laptops for students, but its one-to-one technology program to provide a device for every pupil is on hold because of a lack of funding.
New laptops will be provided to the additional sixth- and eighth-grade students in the school system who are already using laptops regularly. Fifth-graders are also using them.
Fifth, sixth and eighth grades are the only ones in Harford County Public Schools that have a device for each student, despite a four-year plan to have a laptop for every student in the school system.
The first year — the 2017-2018 school year — laptops were purchased for grades 5 and 8. The plan was to buy devices for grades 6 and 4 the second year, grades 7 and 3 the third year and grades 1 and 2 the fourth year, according to school system budget documents.
“It’s been put on hold because we have not been able to secure any type of technology funding from the county executive,” said Drew Moore, director of technology for Harford County Public Schools.
The county, however, said the school system is responsible for managing its funds and setting priorities for how funds are spent, according to Cindy Mumby, spokeswoman for Harford County government.
“Nevertheless, combined county and state funding for HCPS this year exceeded the board of education’s funding request,” Mumby said. “It is true that the county executive has prioritized raises for teachers. Teacher salaries have gone up in each of the last five years of this administration, such that starting teacher salaries in Harford County now rank fifth in the state, and even higher when you factor in the employee cost of benefits.”
At Monday’s meeting, the school board unanimously approved a contract to purchase the 380 laptops for $200,640 — $113,941 from the operating budget and $86,699 from the capital budget — from Dell Marketing LP in Texas.
The laptops stay with the grade, not with the students, Moore said, so students who used laptops in fifth and sixth grade don’t use them in seventh grade, but resume use in eighth.
The additional laptops are because “there’s a bubble that’s going through right now” in sixth and eighth grades, he said.
The laptop program began with fifth- and eighth-grades because those students were taking the PARCC tests, said Susan Brown, executive director of curriculum, instruction and assessment.
Ideally, laptops would be funded for seventh grade next, to continue the learning, Moore said, but the whole one-to-one plan will have to be revisited and will be dependent upon funding.
It would be ideal to have a one-to-one student to computer ratio so students can take them from classroom to classroom, log in once for the day and easily access the class curriculum, Brown said.
“Logistically, they’re not wasting time and instructionally they can get to what we want to do, which is teach the curriculum,” Brown said.
Having a computer at your fingertips is commonplace in the working world, she said.
“We as adults are working that way — I don’t share my computer with another supervisor,” she said. “We want to make sure we prepare students for their future, even though we might not know what it looks like because it’s ever-evolving.”
In grades without one-to-one laptops, either multiple students share one laptop or teachers sign up to take their students to the computer lab at the school, Brown said.
Most schools have bought laptops on their own, finding “pretty creative” ways — including grants — to pay for them, she said. But the ratios at each school are not the same; some are two students per laptop, some are three.
In classes without a one-to-one ratio, teachers have to improvise and use the curriculum differently, Brown said.
While her preference is one-to-one, Brown also said it’s important that students aren’t sitting behind a computer all day and not communicating with each other, having conversations.
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“We never want to take away the human element or communication between students,” Brown said. “Teachers are pretty industrious and inventive in their lesson planning. We trust them to make decisions based on what they have in their classroom.”
Earlier this year, Baltimore County Public Schools scaled back a similar technology program because it wasn’t having a significant impact on student achievement.
Despite the saturation of technology, Baltimore County ranks near the bottom of the state in passing rates on standardized tests. The scores are generally flat for students in grades three through eight, many of whom have had the computers for at least three years.
This fall, rather than one laptop for each student in first- or second-grade, the Baltimore County school system will provide one device for every five students, a school official said last spring.
As the budget season begins in Harford, Brown, Moore and others from the school system’s budget office will discuss where they would like to focus their technology efforts for the next school year, dependent on funding, Brown said.
The FY2021 Capital Improvement Program, approved by the school board Monday to be sent to the state by Oct. 4, includes more than $8.7 million local funding for a technology refresh.
The school board is seeking state funding for three projects, nearly $1.6 million for the roof replacement at Hickory Elementary, nearly $4.3 million for the roof replacement at Bel Air Middle and nearly $8.1 million for the Joppatowne High School limited renovation.