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Computer, School, Family in Houston: A 'Total Commitment'

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Houston--This year, representatives from Australia, Brazil, Germany, Holland, Japan, Norway, Paris, and Scotland have visited the Houston Independent School District to observe the workings of its department of technology.

The department--which represents perhaps the most comprehensive districtwide commitment to educational technology in the country--has gained that international recognition for its innovative strategies for deploying computers to enhance education.

Related stories on pages 10, 11.

When the department opened in January 1982 with a staff of three, there were 280 microcomputers in the city's public schools, officials note. Today, there are close to 5,000 computers in the district's 245 schools.

The technology department's staff, which has grown to 90, is charged with overseeing every aspect of the integration of technology into the schools--from the selection, purchase, and evaluation of hardware and software to the training of teachers, administrators, support personnel, parents, volunteers, and other community members.

Rapid Growth

In charge of the department--which represents a three-year $15-million investment in local, state, and federal funds--is Patricia Sturdivant, the nation's first associate superintendent for technology.

"What we're doing in Houston that is unique," she said, "is providing for an orderly, systematic, and integrated system of technology, and we're doing it extremely rapidly."

To illustrate that point, she and other department officials note that:

Almost 40,000 credit hours were awarded last year to school-district employees through the department's hands-on, orientation, and workshop classes.

More than 10,000 packages of curriculum materials, student workbooks, and teacher guides have been distributed. The materials were developed and field-tested by the department.

More than 5,500 teachers and administrators have been trained by the department--including 173 teachers who have completed, or are undergoing, a 296-hour training course to become "teacher technologists."

Teacher technologists--who receive a $2,000 stipend each year that they upgrade their skills with 30 hours of training through the department--serve as liaisons between the department, the school, and the home. The department's goal is to have one technologist in each school.

About 575 "implementation plans," which outline how a school will use computers, have been funded by the department. A plan must be approved before a school is allowed to purchase hardware and software.

As of June, close to $1 million was raised through a matching-funds program. The department matches every dollar raised by individual schools for the purchase of hardware or software.

About $2 million in hardware purchases, and $600,000 in software purchases, has been saved because of the department's volume-purchase power.

More than 300 service calls are answered each month by a six-member maintenance staff. Calls are answered within 24 hours and a "loaner" computer is provided while a classroom computer is being repaired.

About 2,000 software packages are available for school officials to review in a Software Resource Library. A list of software approved by in-house evaluators for classroom use is updated monthly.

Software Development

In addition, the technology department staff designs software packages. A recently ended two-year development effort has resulted in a software program that teaches English as a second language. Twenty percent of the district's students, who speak a total of 77 different languages, are enrolled in esl classes.

The staff has also developed an electronic-mail system and software programs for budgeting, personnel records, student attendance, and database management. By developing "dot [Department of Technology] Writer," a software program that standardizes word-processing instruction in the classroom, department officials estimate that they will save more than $1 million over the next three years.

A Separate Entity

Unlike technology-department efforts in other school districts--which usually combine the staff of other divisions and/or fall under the jurisdiction of an established division, such as planning--the Houston Department of Technology is a separate entity. It has its own budget, its own building, its own staff, and its own divisions, including those that oversee training, procurement, maintenance, special projects, curriculum development, and telecommunications. (See accompanying box.)

The department's home is in the now-closed Henry W. Grady Elementary School at the corner of San Felipe and Sage Streets in the fashionable Galleria section of Houston. It is at "Old Grady," as the building is called, that the department trains school employees and community members; hosts an annual technology fair; houses its preview library for school employees; provides its "Compu-Buy" library for students and their families; and showcases its "model classroom of the future," designed to "demonstrate the kind of learning that can take place with computers."

The 'Leading Edge'

"I'm surprised more school districts have not set up a department of technology," Ms. Sturdivant said.

"When we started, I thought for sure we were at the leading edge and it would be a matter of months before other school districts would follow. Then months turned into years and now it's almost three years later, and I don't know what happened."

What has happened, some say, is simple economics: Houston, a large school district with a "property-rich" tax base, is able to make the financial commitment to a comprehensive department of technology that other school districts cannot afford.

According to Billy R. Reagan, superintendent of schools, some of the additional revenue raised in a 2-cent tax hike last year helped fund the district's technology effort. He added that part of the justification for an anticipated 1-cent or 2-cent tax hike this year is to purchase additional computers.

"I'm certainly aware that because we have a sound financial base we can afford to [fund a technology department]," said Augustina Reyes, chairman of the Houston school board. "But districts that don't have a sound financial base can combine with other districts and pay for a center that they can share. And there could be other creative ways that districts could finance technology departments."

'Creative Financing'

In Houston, "creative financing" means "redirecting" existing funds, Ms. Sturdivant said.

Each year for the past three years, Ms. Reyes said, the Houston school board has "skimmed off" about $28 million in programs and redirected that money to other programs that were deemed more essential.

One program cut was drivers' education.

"That's just an example of what a school district can do," said Jane Stone, technical-applications manager for Houston's technology department. "What's more important, to learn how to drive a car or to learn technology?"

The 1984-85 budget for the department of technology is $4.2 million, which brings the total three-year investment to $14,969,000.

Forty-three percent of that investment is in local dollars; 18 percent is in federal Chapter 2 funds; 10 percent is in federal Chapter 1 funds; 9 percent is in state compensatory-education funds; less than 1 percent is from a federal grant; and 20 percent is in "flow-through" funds. Flow-through money, which includes federal and state funds, community donations and school activity funds, is given to the department by individual schools for the purchase of hardware or software.

Effort Cited

In its 1982 report, "Informational Technology and its Impact on American Education," the U.S. Office of Technology Assessment recognized the Houston school district for its planning, its organization, and its implementation of a technology program.

It is such a program, Ms. Sturdivant said, that will save Houston from the "computer backlash" that other school districts will not avoid.

"We've moved past the point of euphoria and fascination," she explained. "When there were one or two computers in a school, they were novel devices, but they didn't threaten in any way what we were doing."

"We're beginning to reach a point," she added, "where the technology is signaling a lot of change, and whenever that happens, you'll have people ask: 'Are we moving too fast? Are we making the right decisions?' As you get more and more technology in the system, the problems begin to manifest themselves if you haven't laid the proper groundwork."

"I think," Mr. Reagan said, "we have many lessons to learn by past attempts to use technology in schools, the dramatic failures of television, tape recorders, overhead projectors, and other aides. Without first a plan for its utilization in a building, a trained staff, and a continued coordinated effort, it will fail, and these are the reasons for the failures of the past."

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