The fourth-graders at Belmont Elementary are using Chromebook laptops in their classrooms this year. They will collaborate on projects, practice math skills, do research and write.
All of this was a bit of a surprise.
Struggling with a major budget shortfall in June, school officials in Montgomery County decided they could not afford the computers and delayed the second phase of a major technology initiative that ranks among the nation’s largest school laptop programs.
Then, shortly before school started, the district said it had found money to purchase 20,000 new Chromebooks, largely by using funding slated to replace desktop computers in offices, computer labs and workstations.
That means about half of the second-year schedule for the technology initiative will go on as planned. Students in fourth grade and about half of those in seventh grade will have the devices in their classrooms. Left in a holding pattern are second-graders and high-schoolers.
“Our hope is that in coming years we’ll be able to catch up,” said Sherwin Collette, the Montgomery school system’s chief technology officer.
At Belmont Elementary in Olney, Patrick Shannon counted himself lucky. He learned his grade would get the devices just before school started. “I was like, ‘Yes! We have them!’ ” the 9-year-old said Friday, using his Chromebook for a multiplication game during a math lesson.
The new influx of Chromebooks, expected through October, comes after some parents wrote letters or testified before the county’s school board urging the initiative to be fully funded. Jim Wrathall, who has a seventh-grader at Westland Middle School in Bethesda, organized an online petition in June, drawing 1,172 signatures, including from teachers.
Many parents, teachers and school leaders think the lightweight Chromebooks — unveiled by Google in 2011 — allow students to work with the technology they will need in today’s world. The devices give them access to a wide range of mediums, such as videos and interactive Web sites, while enabling them to work together and communicate with teachers through a cloud-based platform.
Wrathall was pleased to learn of the district’s shift of funding for this year but said he remains concerned about the future of a program he sees as vital.
“It’s a positive step that they have partially reinstated the program, but the concern remains that they recommit on a long-term basis to make sure the resources are there to provide the minimum technology for students,” he said.
Board of Education President Patricia O’Neill said the board faced a budget shortfall of $53 million in June and did its best to balance competing needs as staff positions were cut and some class sizes were expected to increase.
She and others backed the idea of shifting funds around when it was proposed in July, she said. “Rest assured, the board is truly committed to the Chromebook initiative, even in these challenging fiscal times,” she said.
At Westland Middle, the PTA started fundraising for additional Chromebooks in mid-August, hoping to buy at least one cart of the computers, said PTA President Cathy Stocker. The devices are being shared across grades and departments within the school, she said.
“Parents have been chipping in whatever they can,” Stocker said, describing the response as “a strong vote of confidence” in the initiative. “I think parents would not be responsive to this type of fundraising if they didn’t see the positive impact Chromebooks are making day to day in their own kids’ lives.”
A cart with 30 Chromebooks costs about $8,900 including licensing, configuration and delivery, said Collette, the chief technology officer. He said more than 50 of the district’s 202 schools bought at least one Chromebook cart stocked with devices last year, paying for them with grants, parent fundraising or other sources.
Not all parents are equally enthusiastic about the laptops.
Michelle Gluck, vice president of educational issues for Montgomery’s countywide council of PTAs, said she’s concerned that “the curriculum is too dependent on screen time in general.” She said it’s important that the devices be viewed as a learning tool, not the focal point of the classroom.
The scaled-back second year of the district’s technology initiative will cost about $6.8 million, to be financed over four years, Collette said. The first year of the rollout — which provided 40,000 devices in classrooms for grades three, five and six and high school social studies courses — cost $15 million.
Teacher training and support continue to be key, Collette said. Over the summer, more than 3,000 Montgomery teachers attended workshops, conferences and other training focused on integrating technology into teaching and learning.
“We’re off to a good start,” he said. “The professional development must be sustained. We want to make sure we’re doing a first-rate job in supporting teachers in their learning.”
At Belmont Elementary, Principal Evan Pinkowitz says the devices definitely engage students, and he’s glad for the carts of Chromebooks that arrived in August. He sees Chromebooks as learning tools that are effective in the hands of strong teachers, and he said giving students access to new technology is important.
“That’s our world,” he said. “That’s our children’s world. We’re not preparing them unless they use it in our schools.”
In teacher Amanda Dillon’s class Friday, Chromebooks were part of instruction, with some students taking short check-in assessments and others playing fact-fluency math games. Still others rotated into a paper-and-pencil math activity or gathered for more individual attention from their teacher.
When math ended, the 23 students gathered in a circle and shared what they’d enjoyed most with technology during the first week of school.
Some talked about typing on the Chromebooks. One girl said the computer “makes me feel so mature.” But most talked about math.
“Does anyone think they’re getting better at math because they’re playing the games?” Dillon asked. Every child’s hand went up.
“It was awesome to see that because math is scary to a lot of kids,” Dillon said.