This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
The numbers tell the story: Philadelphia has all the markings of a technology-starved school district.
In a report released last fall on 2012-13 information technology benchmarks for about 40 of the school districts making up the Council of the Great City Schools, the School District of Philadelphia ranked second from the bottom in the average age of its computers: just over five years. A computer’s assumed useful life is about five years.
Philadelphia was also fourth from the bottom in devices (computers and tablets) per student. Technology spending as a percentage of the total budget was the third lowest, less than half the median among reporting schools.
This was not a comparison with wealthy suburban schools. The Council of the Great City Schools is made up of large urban districts like New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, Detroit, and Newark, many of which are also struggling with funding issues.
Still, the District’s top technology administrators point to several bright spots.
“We have systems that do the job, and we have a great network – it is pretty miraculous that we have been able to keep pace with the digital world, given our spending level,” said Fran Newberg, the District’s deputy chief of educational technology. She is responsible for helping plan and implement the District’s use of technology in the classroom.
Fran Newberg oversees the District’s use of technology in the classroom. (Photo: Benjamin Herold) She and her colleagues say that even with limited resources, they are rolling out the next generation of technology for classrooms, as well as new administrative systems that will increase efficiency and the exchange of information.
“What has been really painful is that we have not been able to refresh classroom technology in the way we have wanted to,” Newberg said.
The most important District technological asset, said Chief Information Officer Melanie Harris and her deputy, Bob Westall, is the fiber optic network that delivers the Internet to schools.
The Philadelphia District ranks number one among Council of the Great City Schools in network bandwidth, which determines the speed at which the Internet is delivered to a computer. Every classroom is Internet-ready and all have high-speed wireless – Wi-Fi – as well, Westall said.
By June, Westall said, Internet speed will increase by 10 times over its already very good bandwidth. That will enable more classroom use of data- consuming technologies like streaming video.
The network was built largely – about 85 percent – with federal dollars. The School District has been among the best nationwide in securing federally subsidized E-rate dollars for its technology spending, said Chief Information Officer Harris. The District has gotten more than $312 million in E-rate reimbursements since that program for schools began in 1998.
Using the metaphor of the Internet as an information highway, Harris said, “The highway is wide, but there are not as many cars [computers in classrooms] as we would like, and not as many newer models.”
Where the money goes
How much does the District spend on technology in a given year? That’s somewhat hard to piece together.
There is no operating budget expenditure line for replacing aging school computers, for example. New classroom devices are bought largely with foundation grants, federal Title I dollars (money earmarked for low-income students), or individual schools’ discretionary funds.
The District’s central office expenditure on technology for the 2013-14 school year, the latest available, was $12.5 million.
The largest vendors included:
• Verizon, which got $1.2 million for telephones and other technology services.
• School Net, which got about $1.4 million to run StudentNet, a key Internet interface between students and parents and the District.
• Scholarchip Card LLC, which got about $830,000 to provide identification cards and related services.
• Corporate Networking Inc., which got about $565,000 for a variety of technology services.
Most District technology services are outsourced to private vendors; that way, the District gets more federal reimbursements, Westall said.
An additional $7.1 million was spent on computers, tablets, smart boards, etc. That money came 80 percent from grants, Westall said, and mainly out of individual school budgets. Apple, Dell, and a company called Visual Sound were the main vendors.
One indicator of just how shoestring the technology budget is: The District has just seven people who are assigned to maintain broken classroom computers and other technology equipment.
The District, despite its shortcomings, has still taken some important steps forward, the administrators said.
Last year, it was able to put together a new tool for examining how well schools are performing – the School Progress Report. This year, for the first time, that scorecard will include a substantial number of charters: 62 agreed to participate.
An overhaul of the decades-old student information system, used for things like registering children, collecting attendance, creating class schedules, and tracking health issues, is in the works. Final approval for a replacement could come as early as June, Harris said. Then the real work will begin.
“I want principals, secretaries, nurses – anybody who is going to use the system – to decide what to go with,” she said.
The District generally rolls out tech initiatives slowly, often allowing schools to initially choose whether they will use them, then getting feedback before all buildings are included.
“It allows [principals] to set the pace at which they can engage with a new offering,” said Harris, “and allows us to assess the interest level in the schools.”
Schools Superintendent William Hite uses the word technology fewer than half a dozen times in his latest action plan, released in early March, limiting his comments to generalities like: “New approaches to structuring instructional time, grouping students and teachers, and using technology will best enable us to meet students where they are.”
But some initiatives are underway.
The District is purchasing and deploying laptops and scheduling professional development this year for teachers in grades K-5 as part of its early childhood literacy initiative. The initiative calls for many assessments throughout the year of how students are performing in reading and math.
Blended learning, which combines classroom instruction and online learning, is slated for expansion, Newberg said, with requests for proposals already out to various vendors. And more Advanced Placement courses taught online could be on the way.
“We have a modest budget in comparison to other districts, but we work very aggressively to do a lot with a little,” Harris said.
Districts can do well with limited money if they are adroit with planning and implementation, said Sara Schapiro, of Digital Promise, a nonprofit organization designed to spur innovation in education through technology use and research.
More than the technology itself, she said, they are “the key part – the essential part of technical education – having a clear plan and a good idea of what classroom needs are.”