By Betsy Dolan
Calling them “digital natives in a digital age”, the Fort Bend ISD Board of Trustees voted to equip students with iPads as part of a controversial $18 million dollar program to boost science scores district wide. The iACHIEVE initiative will involve three Title 1 pilot schools to start with 12 other schools added next year and the remaining 47 schools added in the 2013- 2014 school year.
“This board recognizes that there are achievement gaps in certain schools,” said Trustee Marilyn Glover. “We have groups who accuse the schools from the east end of dragging the district down. This is an opportunity to put up or shut up.”
In January 2011, the district began investigating whether using technology in the classroom, specifically hand-held devices, could help improve science achievement scores for K-8 students. TAKS scores from 2006 to 2011 show a significant decline in science performance in the district, particularly with at-risk students. In an email to district employees obtained by the “Fort Bend Star”, district Superintendent Dr. Timothy Jenney wrote, “This program is built upon the integration of science content and technology and relies upon mobile technology devices to bring daily rigorous and relevant science lessons to our students in their home school classrooms.”
The Board of Trustees say the money to launch the iACHIEVE program will come from reallocated bond money, a $6 million dollar technology grant and a $1 million dollar donation from the George Foundation. Several parents addressed the board at the February 13 meeting to protest spending $18 million dollars on iPads when the district is still reeling from budgetary cutbacks and teacher layoffs over the past two years.
“We would love all students to use iPads”, said Jenny Bailey, whose children attend Fort Bend ISD schools. “But is spending $18 million dollars an efficient use of the district’s resources? Shouldn’t we be looking at ways to spend less?”
“Education does not require bells and whistles. It requires a mind, creativity and a pencil”, said Tammy Moreno whose children attend Cornerstone Elementary. “$18 million could go a long way in accommodating our students. How can you talk about closing schools while some students get iPads?”
Two Trustees also expressed their concern for launching the iACHIEVE initiative this year. Susan Hohnbaum and Jim Rice, who were the only board members to vote against the plan, cautioned against moving too quickly when the district is still working to get it’s financial footing.
I believe this is a good program at the wrong time”, said Trustee Jim Rice. “I am told that 2013 is going to be another lean year with the state legislature and now is not the time to do this.”
I want to see how the pilot goes”, said Trustee Susan Hohnbaum. “We don’t know the impact on teachers. We have not started the budget. I don’t feel this is the right time either.”
The district’s Chief Information Officer, Robert Calvert told the board that this is exactly the right time to launch the iACHIEVE program. He says the district has significantly under-invested in technology citing Klein ISD which has fewer students than Fort Bend ISD but has spent $60 million dollars more in increasing and improving the technology available in classrooms.
“This is the perfect time to change the game, to change education”, Calvert told the board. “We can hit the right people. If this isn’t the right time then I don’t know when the right time will be. We’ve significantly underinvested in this.”
The iACHIEVE initiative will begin at Ridgegate and Ridgemont Elementary Schools later this month and at McAuliffe Middle School in April. Following an evaluation of the pilot and any adjustments to the program, iACHIEVE will be offered to 12 voluntary schools, second grade to eighth grade, beginning with the 2012-2013 school year. The following school year, the program will be added to the remaining 47 schools.