K-12 IT | Feature

Filling the Tech Gap

Schools and districts find creative ways to teach 21st century learners on shoestring budgets

As the hammer falls on more public and private school budgets, one has to wonder just how these institutions will manage to acquire the equipment, software, and knowledge aptitudes necessary to teach students success skills for the 21st century workforce. Somewhere between those schools that are eligible for government resources and support, and those that can afford to do it on their own, lies a "middle slice" of K-12 institutions that struggle with this challenge daily.

Kate Ross, an instructional coach with the Alpine School District in American Fork, UT, has worked with and for a number of schools that struggle to balance funding and resources against the need for technology equipment and training. A few years ago, while working at a different district, for example, Ross helped launch an online writing pilot program targeted at students in grades 7 through 9. (The pilot program used MY Access! from Vantage Learning.)

"It was a cool, online forum that allowed teachers to go online and pick from over 1,200 different topics for students to write about," said Ross. "Students amassed electronic portfolios, and their essays were auto-scored by the system." The pilot lasted a few years, at which point Ross and her team decided it would be effective for the entire district.

"It took forever to get everyone on board (some were skeptical about the 'artificial intelligence' used in the grading system), but we managed to get commitments from junior high schools that wanted to use the online writing tool," said Ross. "Then we found out that the district couldn't fund the project."

So after working for years to introduce the cutting-edge program across the district, Ross said Utah's low per-pupil spending rate took its toll. "It wasn't that the district didn't want the program; it just couldn't afford it," said Ross, who wasn't willing to give up so quickly. She approached the state education office to see if some funding could be reallocated to the program. The solution worked for a short period of time ... until that money ran out too.

"Somehow we've managed to keep the program alive, and it's now being used in about 30 different districts across the state," said Ross. "Unfortunately, the state funding has run out, and those individual districts have been left to their own devices again." (Some have used trust land funding, while others have asked their school boards for fee increases.)

"Fee increases have helped bridge the gap when schools can't afford to buy technology," said Ross. Finally, she said parent fundraisers can also "fill in" where school budgets leave off. At the Kane County School District in Kanab, UT, for example, Ross said the online writing program is funded through "collections raised from parents, and through the community."

Ross said other districts challenged by the gap between funding resources and technology needs can borrow a page from those 30 districts determined to keep their online writing programs in place. In the case of the writing program, for example, she said funding the professional development was one of the more expensive components. To solve the problem, a small group of teachers attended an institute's training course and then shared that knowledge with the rest of the district.

"Collaboration can be an extremely effective tool when you're trying to infuse technology into the classroom," said Ross. "The conversations that took place between those teachers who received the formal training, and the rest of the staff, went a long way in making sure everyone knew how to use the online program."

Liz Dwyer has also seen her share of school districts attempting to keep up with technology while sticking to today's meager budgets. A former teacher who also worked for Teach for America, Dwyer serves as education ambassador for the Pepsi Refresh Project, which awards grants to groups that develop good ideas.

Dwyer, who is based in Los Angeles, works with a number of schools that have been hit hard by California's budget crunch. "We've seen almost $2 billion cut from education over the last two years," said Dwyer. "That's affected low-income schools, wealthy schools, and everything in between." Those lower-income schools typically qualify for Title I funding, she added, but those in the "middle area" have had to get more creative about how they fund technology initiatives.

"We're seeing a lot of parent-teacher organizations get involved and become pretty much full-time fundraisers for their schools," said Dwyer. Other options include sites like DonorsChoose, which bills itself as an "online charity connecting you to classrooms in need." Through such sites, Dwyer said the teacher that needs 20 iPod Touches for her science class can download an application and submit a proposal.

"DonorsChoose will send that application out to local businesses and the community, asking people to fund the purchase of those items," said Dwyer. "It's an option that I see being used by more and more schools."

Sometimes, said Ross, a successful school- or district-wide technology implementation can happen in spite of budgetary woes, thanks to the support of teachers, administrators and school board members. "When you can come together as a consortium and work as a group, it can be pretty powerful," said Ross. "Get your legislators' ears, and just keep working until you get where you need to be. I've seen with my own eyes how well this can succeed."

About the Author

Bridget McCrea is a business and technology writer in Clearwater, FL. She can be reached at [email protected].