hgazette.com, Haverhill, MA

March 17, 2011

Scully unveils ambitious tech plan for city schools

By Tim McCarthy
tmccarthy@hgazette.com

Usually, it's students who give their teacher an apple. But School Superintendent James Scully wants to put an Apple in reach of every student.

Scully has unveiled a two-year technology improvement plan that would not only improve the district Internet and networking infrastructure, but also place some of the latest Apple devices in the hands of students across all grade levels.

"It's not a question of us wanting to do it," he said. "Kids are demanding it."

According to Scully, these new updates will tackle the long-standing problem of "piecemeal updates" to the district's technology. Within the coming years, Scully said, he hopes to update computer labs throughout the district with Apple's MacBook laptops as the de facto computer standard. He added that PC labs with Dell computers, additional Web servers, and new mobile iPod labs should also arrive within the next few years.

"Over the last 10 years, everything has been done piecemeal," he said. "The problem is the system isn't capable."

Funding for a number of these initiatives will come through grants and promotional deals struck with technology companies.

The district is still in the process of negotiating purchases, but the first Mac lab, which will be installed at the Whittier Middle School, will cost about $60,000. Scully said a combination of grants and district money will pay for it.

In the meantime, however, IT department employees will have their work cut out for them.

Pamela Carr, who doubles as both the city and Haverhill Public Schools director of technology, said one of the key challenges her department faces in improving network speed and access throughout the district is the construction of the buildings themselves.

Since many were built before or just on the cusp of the Internet boom in the late 1990s, they cannot be rewired without dismantling ceiling tiles or navigating through thick cement walls. Those walls also hinder wireless signals from reaching every classroom.

"They didn't think of technology or even power," Carr said, noting many classrooms in older buildings feature a lone power outlet.

To compound her frustrations, the district boasts an IT staff of only seven employees. Four of those are network assistants who work within the buildings themselves, while the remaining employees work as network and database engineers. The school committee budgets about $373,000 for the IT department each year.

"We're trying to do the best with what we have," Carr said. "It's becoming overwhelming."

Due to a limited budget, technology updates come slowly as well.

The district technology upgrades come primarily through a "trickle-down" system. As new computer hardware upgrades are installed, the slower computers of the district, many running on processors and memory over six years old, receive the remaining chips to increase their speed.

Carr said it's an imperfect solution, since many of the new software suites installed throughout the district demand more computing power and Internet bandwidth then the district can supply.

A technology director for over 19 years with the city, Carr said she's optimistic about the future of technology in the Haverhill schools given Scully's affirmation of support.

"I see a lot of good things coming down the line," she said. "The support for technology is going to be there."

One of those good things will include an injection of funds into improving network infrastructure over the next two years. Scully estimated the district will spend $350,000 and $400,000 next year and the following year, respectively, for improvements that will include new servers, wireless routers and cabling.

Scully said another improvement coming to the district within the next several months involves a brand new school website that will not only provide a cleaner and more colorful interface for users but also provide district teachers a centralized resource to upload class assignments and homework. As with the current website design, every school webpage will be based on the style and format of the district's new home page.

Haverhill-based Web master Tony Lee designed the new site alongside Carr.

Scully noted that while teachers throughout the district have had the capability to upload their assignments online, many complained that slow connection speeds throughout the schools led many of them to feel the process was an unnecessary burden. Scully himself admitted it took him close to 10 minutes to log onto the Internet through a connection at Haverhill High School.

"We know the frustrations of the staff," he said. "They don't want to waste time trying to get things going."

Educators such as Tilton Elementary Assistant Principal Russell Marino feel the move to a technology-based classroom will benefit both children and teachers.

"The whole idea of a modern century classroom is to infuse technology," he said. "Kids today are exposed to technology from a young age. The way their minds are being developed is with a technology twist. You'll see kids interacting with math."

Tilton will be one of the first schools to receive an iPod mobile math lab later this year. Teachers can use the iPods, loaded with math-focused apps, to assist elementary school students in grasping complicated math problems and projects. The 60 iPods which make up the lab were funded through a $100,000 grant won by the district.

Scully said he's investigating e-readers for students, such as the Apple iPad and Amazon Kindle, though he is unlikely to act on it in the foreseeable future.

Proponents for e-readers, such as School Committee President Joseph Bevilacqua, say they'll dominate the classroom within the coming years by allowing students to easily integrate the resources of the Internet into their texts.

Some, such as Committee Chairman and Mayor James Fiorentini, still feel unsure about the technology and wish to maintain a "blended" approach to its use in the classroom.

Fiorentini said that while he's not opposed to new technology, he's wary of how frequently the latest and greatest piece of technology becomes out of date.

"Just as the Apple IIe, thought of as the great savior of education, is obsolete," he said.