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Learning in the digital age

March school tech levy to pay for upgrades

By Elizabeth Celms
Mercer Island Reporter

This March, Mercer Island residents will vote on a $9.9-million Capital Projects Levy for the school district. A major portion of this levy ($6.74 million) makes up technology improvements and additions. Covering everything from interactive whiteboards to computer training for teachers, the funds have become crucial in forming an education program that prepares children for a technology-driven world.

“We’ve got 21st century kids and need to be teaching in 21st century ways,” said MISD Director of Technology, Jennifer Wright. “The digital life is their life, and we need to capitalize on that.”

After months of research and discussion, the district’s technology advisory committee — led by Wright — compiled a financial list of the equipment and upgrades needed to keep Island students at the competitive level. After discussing several estimates with the School Board, both parties agreed on $6.74 million. If the Capital Projects Levy is approved, the technology funds will be dispensed over a period of four years.

A large part of the money ($1.5 million) will go toward building a local area and area-wide fiber Internet network between all five schools and the district administration building. Computer replacement, including software licensing and maintenance agreements, makes up another significant portion of the levy ($1.3 million). According to Wright, the computers being used by the district have a four- to six-year lifespan. Therefore, many of the machines purchased through the 2002 and 2004 technology levy already need to be replaced.

In addition to these replacements, the district has asked that $300,000 be set aside for new computers. Most of these will be Macs, Wright said, although the high school also uses PC computers.

“We want kids to have experience with both [Macs and PCs]. Macs are widely used and good for design programs, but by the time you’re in high school, you’re using productivity tools that happen on both platforms,” she explained.

Wright estimated that there are currently about 2.5 students per computer, with a total of 1,550 machines in use. Statewide, this ratio is strong, yet there are other areas where Mercer Island falls behind.

“There are needs not being met,” Wright said. In particular, the district lacks LCD projectors, which teachers depend on for class presentations. The LCD device is used to display video imagery or computer data on an overhead screen.

“If teachers want [an LCD projector], they have to plan ahead because there are only so many,” the former MIHS physics teacher said. “With the short amount we have now, there are lost opportunities for teachers and kids. It’s one of the most requested items for enrichment grants.”

The 2008 technology levy has allocated $450,000 for this item, ensuring a mounted LCD projector in every classroom.

MIHS English teacher Jamie Prescott agrees that the school could be much better off in terms of readily available equipment.

“When we have a class computer assignment, it’s always a struggle to get the right technology, based on the lack of availability. It takes us about 10 minutes every class period just to find a computer in the building for each student,” she said.

“The technology that’s available now far surpasses what we have in our classrooms,” Prescott added. “[The tech levy] could help us get caught up with other districts. There are tools out there that we don’t have the funds for.”

Equipment is not the only financial focus. Much of the levy will go toward technology training. In fact, $600,000 has been set aside to educate teachers on the new equipment, and $935,000 will be used to hire two “technology integration specialists,” full-time educators in charge of coaching staff and planning computer assignments for K-12 students.

“This is relatively new to our district, but many schools are doing it,” Wright explained. “It’s like having coaches in the building. They will be teachers who know both the technology and the curriculum and they’ll work on integrating the two every day.”

Over the past 10 years, the district has put significant effort into training teachers, many of whom had never used a laptop before, on how to bridge the narrowing gap between education and technology. Today, most MISD educators are caught up. Yet with the rapid development of software, there is always a need to push teachers to the next level.

“The 2002 levy gave every teacher a laptop, and there were teachers literally scared to turn the thing on. We don’t have anyone at the bottom anymore, so now it’s about how much farther we can move the whole core of teachers up, ” said Wright.

Compared with the 2002 and 2004 technology levies ($2.8 million and $2.9 million, respectively), this year’s $6.74 million may raise a few eyebrows. But Wright points out that previous levies were relatively modest. And now, it is important that they pick up the extra weight.

“We’re playing catch-up because we ran conservative numbers in ’02 and ’04, while other districts did this in ’06 with huge levies,” she said.

The Capital Projects Levy will be brought to voters in a special election on March 11. For a detailed description of the levy, go to: www.misd.k12.wa.us.

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