High-Tech Carts Deployed in Schools Hurt by Storms

Coalition offers ‘mobile’ classrooms’ with latest educational technology.

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Four schools in the Baton Rouge, La., area are to be the first recipients of donated state-of the-art technology packages this week as a part of an initiative to upgrade or replace the technology infrastructure of Gulf Coast schools affected by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita.

The Hurricane Education Leadership Program, or HELP, Team is composed of more than 60 major technology companies, nonprofit organizations, foundations, and other groups that joined forces after last year’s devastating storms to deliver technology products, services, and support to struggling districts. Employees of the Intel Corp. initiated and now manage the project.

Gulf Coast’s HELP Team

The team has designed portable carts that hold 25 to 30 notebook computers, or 15 to 20 tablet personal computers, all equipped for wireless computing; a wireless printer, server, and access point to the Internet; a liquid-crystal-display, or LCD, videodata projector; Web-based student-assessment tools; digital whiteboards; an infrared student-response system; and professional-development materials for the teachers who will be using the devices. The team is working to secure funding for as many carts as possible.

The team held two single-day events on “21st-century learning environment” technology for educators and administrators in the New Orleans area this past summer. Twenty-four HELP Team corporate partners participated, including Apple, eInstruction, FutureKids, Gateway, Ignite! Learning, Lenovo, McGraw-Hill, Microsoft, Pearson Learning Group, Polycom, Princeton Review, Scantron, SMART Technologies, and Toshiba.

HELP Team members are offering educational technology to hurricane-affected schools at a 26 percent discount off educational pricing.

Nokia and Pearson Learning sponsored weeklong digital-arts camps for middle school students in Bay St. Louis and Pass Christian, Miss., and Plaquemines Parish, La. Students worked in teams to create digital films on their personal responses to Hurricane Katrina and recommendations for how communities should rebuild. More than 500 students in the three communities attended the camps.

Schools from across the Gulf Coast region have called upon team members for advice on rebuilding infrastructure, ordering products, developing or revising technology plans, offering staff training and professional development, providing online education for students, raising funds, and other services.

This group consists of four educators from the Gulf Coast region who have volunteered to provide guidance and leadership to schools in the event of another disaster.

“You shouldn’t find 17th- and 18th-century tools in a 21st-century environment,” said Terry Smithson, the HELP Team manager and an education strategist for Intel, which is based in Santa Clara, Calif.

In Baton Rouge, which took in many students displaced by Katrina, the team will deploy four “mobile classrooms,” a portable set of educational technology materials costing $40,000 each.

The equipment has been paid for by the Baton Rouge Area Foundation and is going to two elementary schools and one middle school in the East Baton Rouge district, and to one high school in the City of Baker district.

After this week’s event, the HELP Team hopes to secure funders to pay for more carts along the Gulf Coast. The packages also are available for schools to purchase, at a 26 percent discount off regular educational pricing.

High Tech on Wheels

Each “classroom” consists of a portable cart that holds 25 to 30 notebook computers, or 15 to 20 tablet personal computers, all equipped for wireless computing, as well as a wireless printer, server, and access point to the Internet. The carts also come with a liquid-crystal-display, or LCD, video-data projector; Web-based student-assessment tools; digital whiteboards; an infrared student-response system; and professional-development materials for the teachers who will be using the devices.

Rich Valerga, the director of information technology for the Algiers Charter School Association in New Orleans, said that the teachers from his eight charter schools who attended a HELP Team–sponsored presentation last month were “floored” by the technology.

He said the teachers were especially impressed with the student-assessment tools and the SMART Boards, whiteboards that display digital information, images, and video from the Internet and other computerized sources to present interactive lessons for students.

Mr. Valerga said the carts let teachers pose questions to students about concepts they are teaching, ask students to respond on their personal computers, instantly view their responses to judge how well the class understands the material, and immediately tailor their instruction to meet the students’ needs. That way, he said, teachers don’t have to wait until the end of the week or until the next quiz to find out what students are, or aren’t, learning.

‘Under One Umbrella’

The “mobile classrooms” are the most concrete example of ways in which the HELP Team is pursuing a goal of establishing technology-integrated “21st-century learning environments” in schools across the Gulf Coast region.

Mr. Smithson said the HELP Team wants hurricane-damaged schools to avoid reverting to chalk and chalkboard, tools that he said belong in the past. Rather, he said, schools should be more in tune with the “millennial student”—students who have grown up in a world of interactive technology, such as instant messaging, text messaging, and even television shows that allow viewers to call in votes for their favorite performers.

Mr. Smithson proposed the idea for the team to the senior management at Intel after noticing that money and products intended for Gulf Coast schools were either not reaching their intended destinations or were being allocated in the wrong proportions.

Truckloads of donated materials were sitting untouched, he said, while some schools were renting storage space to house the abundance of donations they had received.

Intel was well suited to head the initiative because “we’re an ingredient company,” he said in a recent interview, referring to the internal computer and electronics components the company manufactures. “We have relationships with all the players,” he said.

At an event in December, Mr. Smithson invited companies and organizations with interests in educational technology to “get under one umbrella” in aiding schools affected by the storms. He now manages the project full time.

The team’s partners—including the computer manufacturer Dell Inc., the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, and the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation—have been providing technical support, guidance, and reduced-price equipment to schools in the region ever since.

People Power

Mr. Valerga, for example, bought four scaled-down versions of the carts for his New Orleans’ Algiers charter schools at a reduced price from companies involved in the project.

He said members of the team have helped him with ordering products, developing technology plans and student-information systems, and training his staff to complement their instruction with new technology.

There has been “so much that [the team is] able to get together that we can’t,” he said. And, he added, “being able to bounce ideas off the top engineers in the field is incredible.”

John D. Pickering Sr., the chief executive officer of Technical Systems Integrators, a Tyrone, Ga.-based technology-consultation and -installation company, and the chairman of the HELP Team’s information-technology committee, said he and other employees of his company have been volunteering their services, mostly consulting work, to schools since Hurricane Katrina.

Since many schools still need to be repaired or rebuilt, he estimates that installing up-to-date learning environments across the Gulf Coast will take at least four years. Melinda Dinin, the HELP Team project manager and an Intel employee, said she expects that the project will take five years.

Mr. Pickering said he thinks that once the project is complete, “these states will stand a good chance of being ahead of the game in the country” in the quality of their educational technology.

The team’s managers also hope that their efforts on the Gulf Coast will serve as a model. Several educators from schools in the region have volunteered to serve on the project’s Educator Response Team, which can be called upon for guidance and leadership in the event of other disasters.

As for the schools recovering from the hurricanes of 2005, the HELP Team partners are taking measures to ensure that they not only get the resources they need, but also take full advantage of the resources they receive.

According to Ms. Dinin, schools involved in this week’s donation have agreed to let members of the team visit the schools periodically to check that the carts are being used and have not been taken apart and divided between classrooms. Ideally, the team would like the carts to be used between different classrooms at least 70 percent of the school day, Ms. Dinin said, and “we don’t want [them] to be cannibalized.”

The packages are designed to be moved easily between classrooms, especially in hurricane-damaged schools that are using portable trailers. The “classrooms” all contain the same materials, although each school can select equipment manufacturers it would like to work with.

The carts’ mobility was a huge selling point for Mr. Valerga, who bought four scaled-down versions of the carts for his schools at a reduced price from companies involved in the project.

“I’m really against taking kids out of class, walking them down the hall to the computer lab, and having the lab teacher take over,” he said.

Plus, he said, if another hurricane strikes, “we can just throw them in the back of a truck” and move them out of harm’s way.

Vol. 26, Issue 04, Page 10

Published in Print: September 20, 2006, as High-Tech Carts Deployed in Schools Hurt by Storms
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