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Published in Print: April 13, 2015, as District Allows Schools to Take Lead on Buying

Colo. System Lets Individual Schools Shape Ed-Tech Buying

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The 24,000-student Academy School District 20 in Colorado Springs, Colo., has long prioritized site-based autonomy for principals.

So when Diane Quarles-Naghi, a local principal, decided that ST Math was the best blended-learning math software for her school, Pioneer Elementary, it was up to her to figure out how to make the purchase happen.

"I loved the program," said Ms. Quarles-Naghi, now in her 16th year as a school leader. "But I could not have paid for it out of my budget from the district. It's pretty costly."

The software, formally known as Spatial-Temporal Math and created by the MIND Research Institute, focuses on visual, game-based mathematics instruction. ST Math is perhaps best known for its central character: JiJi, an animated penguin that students must navigate through obstacles by solving math problems. Schools are typically expected to let students use the software for 90 minutes per week, often in some kind of "rotational" blended-learning model in which children spend regular time in computer labs or on personal devices.

The MIND Research Institute typically charges schools a large upfront fee to get started with the program, then a smaller recurring annual fee to continue.

In the case of Pioneer Elementary, that meant Ms. Quarles-Naghi had to come up with $11,000 to bring the software to her entire school.

That became possible when Pioneer was designated a whole-school Title I building prior to this academic year.

Common Reasons for Failure

Even procurement experts who believe in school-based decisionmaking acknowledge that it can be difficult for school leaders to meaningfully evaluate whether a software program is as effective as its vendor claims. Decisions made on first impressions and word-of-mouth referrals can easily end in disaster.

And when school-based software adoptions fail, specific factors are typically to blame, said James P. Lund, the vice president of education success for the MIND Research Institute, who oversees training and support for schools and districts implementing ST Math.

"It's usually because whoever was initially involved in the purchase decision didn't fully understand their school's technical capabilities," Mr. Lund said. "Either they don't have the bandwidth or enough computers or projectors for teachers to use the software correctly."

Academy School District 20 has safeguards against such potential problems.

The district's information-technology staff, for example, will evaluate any proposed software purchase to make sure that the school's network can support it, that the program is compatible with the district's operating system, and that other options were considered.

It's not a "free for all," said J. Thomas Gregory, the district's chief financial officer.

Neither is it a particularly efficient system, he added.

The district sometimes loses out on volume-based purchasing discounts, for example, and it can be challenging for IT staff to manage and support the panoply of hardware and software that different schools use.

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But site-based software procurement allows schools to be more responsive to student needs and helps principals to better accommodate the desires of parents and skills of their staff, Mr. Gregory said.

For Principal Quarles-Naghi, that autonomy is worth its weight in gold.

"Sixteen years ago, when I was a brand-new principal just trying to get the lunch schedule right, I would have embraced [the choices] of experts up at the district," she said.

"But [Academy School District 20] is different from other places I've worked in. They trust me to do my job."

Vol. 34, Issue 27, Page s10

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