Laptop pilot program change to reduce cost for next phase

Next phase of pilot program to involve about 500 students

By Kari Williams

A change in phase two of the Mehlville School District’s One-to-One Open-Source Pilot Program is expected to cost roughly half of the initial estimate.

Originally, Superintendent Eric Knost asked the Board of Education to allocate $600,000 for the second phase of the program, which allows one laptop per student instead of textbooks. Knost told the board April 18 the cost for the new phase two will be roughly $300,000, though he will bring a more specific amount to the board May 10.

Two classes in every core subject and health, at both district high schools — roughly 500 students — will be involved in phase two, rather than the incoming freshman class of about 1,000 students.

Board member Mark Stoner asked how district officials will explain spending $300,000 for the second phase of the program.

“Three-hundred-thousand dollars is a lot of money to spend and the taxpayers are going to look for a little bit of an explanation on that,” Stoner said. “What kind of criteria can you put forth to say, ‘Yes, this is really going to be a positive program?'”

District officials, according to Knost, will conduct student surveys, observe classrooms and ask for teacher input — similar to what has been done in phase one.

“I’m not interested in moving forward with anything that we don’t have proof is effective,” he said. “It’s proven very, very effective. The excitement generated, and these two classrooms that we’ve sustained over this semester, has been really good.”

Though phase two will no longer include the entire freshman class, Knost said there will still be a “significantly” higher number of students involved compared to phase one of the pilot program, which consisted of one communication arts class at each high school.

“I think it’s a good way to do it,” he said. “I think it’s a careful approach. We’re still trying to learn. We’re still trying to see what works well …”

Roughly 20 teachers will participate in phase two on a volunteer basis.

Allison Braun and Tracy Krysl, communication arts teachers currently involved in phase one of the program, will continue into phase two.

Braun, who teaches at Mehlville, expects to teach three sections of English I classes.

“I’m looking forward to (adding two more sections) so I can really put my all into this,” Braun told the Call.

Krysl, who teaches at Oakville, said she compares going into phase two of the pilot to a first-year teacher moving on to the second year of teaching. Krysl expects to teach two sections of English I Honors next year.

“I am past that learning-curve stage, so I won’t be learning how to implement these laptops in class along with the students,” Krysl said.

One aspect of the program that could benefit future teachers is professional development, Knost said. The teachers involved in phase one, though eager, felt “a little bit on their own” in selecting appropriate open-source material, according to Knost.

Braun said she started with a Google search to find different resources she could implement in the classroom.

“I was fine and felt I was able to find things, but if we expand this next year, I think we really need to give the (professional development) opportunity to the teachers,” Braun said.

A “train-the-trainer” model will be built into professional development training, Knost said, which will allow the teachers who volunteer to train future teachers involved in the program. Any professional development that is done will, initially, only be for one year, according to Knost.

“I think anything beyond that (one year of professional development training) would be very scaled back compared to what we would do the first year, based on the fact we’d have resident experts,” he said.

Professional development is expected to cost around $25,000, according to Knost, and would be funded through Title II grant money.

Students currently involved in the pilot will continue to use the laptops next school year, according to Knost.

“Students are just technologically minded these days, so they find benefit to the devices even beyond maybe what is built in to the lesson from the teacher’s planning,” he said. “So, our thoughts are, we think the kids have been very, very cooperative. It just makes sense to let them continue on with them.”

Board President Venki Palamand said he recently observed the Oakville Senior High School communication arts class and all the students were engaged.

“I saw one student essentially pull an electronic Post-it note off to the side and take notes while the teacher was lecturing,” he said. “Afterwards, I asked for feedback and the kids said they loved it; they thought it was really good; they were excited to have it …”