Bentonville Schools ramping up device access

Posted: November 20, 2017 at 1 a.m.

Hannah Graves, a third-grade teacher, helps Liam Fitzsimmons (from left), Matthew Bradford and Laney Dollar while studying with their Chromebook computers Wednesday in her classroom at Mary Mae Jones Elementary in Bentonville.

BENTONVILLE -- Every high school student will be assigned a laptop computer next fall, the final step in the school district's march to a 1-to-1 electronic device to student ratio.

A student studies on a Chromebook computer Wednesday in Hannah Graves’ third-grade classroom at Mary Mae Jones Elementary in Bentonville.

The district's technology department is preparing to deliver a total of 1,980 Chromebooks to the elementary schools, which will bring each elementary school to the 1-to-1 level. The middle and junior high schools recently achieved 1-to-1 status as well.

Device destinations

The Bentonville School District has bought 6,030 Chromebooks since July 2016. Here’s where they’ve gone:

Elementary schools: 4,200

Middle schools: 1,290

Junior high schools: 360

High schools: 180

Source: Bentonville School District

"Our goal is operating within the allocated technology budget to improve equity and access of classroom technology for students" by achieving a 1-to-1 ratio districtwide, said Thomas Rice, Bentonville's director of technology.

Northwest Arkansas' other big school districts all have invested heavily in Chromebooks and tablets for students as well. Rogers, Fayetteville and Springdale all have reported being close to or at 1-to-1 in terms of personal electronic devices.

Technology in Springdale classrooms has expanded rapidly since the district received a $25.88 million Race to the Top grant from the U.S. Department of Education in 2013. All students in grades kindergarten through second have iPad Minis. All students in grades three through 12 have Chromebooks, according to Rick Schaeffer, district spokesman.

Rice provided data showing ratios of electronic devices to students varied widely from one Bentonville school to the next on July 1, 2016, when he started as technology director. The ratios were higher than 3-to-1 at five of the district's 10 elementary schools and higher than 4-to-1 at two of them.

The technology department gradually reduced those ratios to 1-to-1 through three waves of Chromebook purchases that brought a total of 6,030 new Chromebooks to the district, most of which went to the elementary schools.

The latest purchase of 2,940 Chromebooks and the carts that go with them cost about $800,000, according to Rice. The carts provide teachers a place to store and charge the devices while they're not in use.

The technology department did not receive any additional money for these purchases. It absorbed the cost of all the Chromebooks by shifting priorities and rescheduling other projects, Rice said.

Rice has done an incredible job providing devices to the schools, said Superintendent Debbie Jones.

"What takes most districts a millage, a huge fundraising effort, he's done quietly over a two-year period," Jones said at last week's School Board meeting.

In the classroom

Hannah Graves, a third-grade teacher at Jones Elementary School in Bentonville, said electronic devices have changed education for the better. Students can use them to help guide their own learning, which leads to taking ownership of their learning, she said.

Technology also has kids excited about learning even some of the less exciting subject matters, she said.

"For example, we're studying pronouns. We can introduce it through games, or there are so many programs that introduce it in a fun and interesting way," she said.

Lillian Hedge, 8, a student in Graves' classroom, said her favorite activity on her Chromebook is TypingClub, a program that teaches users how to type. Lillian is in her first year at Jones Elementary. She came from a private school, where she said there wasn't a computer in her classroom.

"I love this change," she said.

Ashley Williams became principal of Jones Elementary School in 2010 and has watched the gradual rollout of technology throughout her building. It started with the district's 21st Century Technology initiative, which awarded about 100 grants for a classroom set of iPads or laptops to teachers.

Jones Elementary still had 3.7 students for every electronic device as of last year. The administration's and board's focus on 1-to-1 got the school to that ratio faster than anyone had expected, Williams said.

"I can tell you that for these students and teachers, it's like Christmas when that technology truck shows up and those Chromebooks are being unloaded," she said.

Students take care of the devices, she said.

"They're very protective of them. They own that in their mind. They are responsible for that device when they're here at school," Williams said.

Graves said today's students will have to know how to use technology to be successful in the adult world.

"So the more we can introduce the skill when they are younger, and the more we can build their knowledge of this tool, the more prepared they'll be further on in their life," she said.

High school assignments

Bentonville High School and West High School have a combined 1,910 devices for nearly 5,000 students. The district plans to take those devices currently in carts at the high schools and make another bulk purchase of devices to issue one to each student starting next school year, Rice said.

Putting carts of devices in every high school classroom would result in having more devices than students, he said.

The goal is to establish a student-run help desk at both high schools to provide basic troubleshooting for students' devices. If it's a matter that can't be fixed on the spot, the help desk will have spare devices available to lend to students, Rice said.

Rice held out the possibility that students could be allowed to keep those devices when they graduate. If a student has gone a full four years with a single device, that device would be approaching the end of its expected life anyway, he said.

"We have to have conversations about that," he said.

Rice said his department is establishing an asset-management system that will give them a handle on the age of each piece of technological equipment in the district, from laptops to projectors. That will let the department know when it needs to buy new equipment.

"Laptops wear out faster than desktops. And Chromebooks have a little bit longer lifespan than laptops. We'll set those variables in that asset tracking system so that we can keep up with that," he said.

NW News on 11/20/2017