2017-08-03 / Front Page

City Council Approves Laptop Purchase

By Olga Enger

Newport public school officials are purchasing 900 laptops for students and teachers and over 50 projectors for classrooms after the Newport City Council approved a one-time $600,000 expense at the Wednesday, July 26 meeting.

The non-reoccurring appropriation provides the start-up costs for the district’s five-year strategic plan, which aims to put a computer into the hands of every student within five years. Generally, the educational goal of one-to-one computing is to incorporate technology into the curriculum and provide opportunities for student-centered learning. Since the late 1990s, one-to- one student computing has rapidly been gaining favor in school districts across the nation. In 2002, Maine became the first state to launch a statewide program.

The money to purchase the technology was pulled from the city’s $15 million fund balance, and the item was not part of the municipal or school department budget approved last month. The purchase does not impact the tax rate. The council supported the one-time allocation in a 7-0 vote.

“I think this is the right direction to go in for our kids, especially for some of the business we are trying to bring to Newport,” said Councilor Jeanne-Marie Napolitano.

The laptops purchased are expected to be Chromebooks, which run on Google's Chrome operating system and are considered a cheaper alternative to traditional laptops.

By 2022, the Rhode Island Department of Labor and Training estimates more than 4,000 openings in computer and math jobs will be available in the state. The U.S. Department of Labor reports that the median annual wage for technology jobs is around $80,000.

“Let’s do a better job at incorporating technology into the curriculum,” said Councilor John Florez.

Councilor Kathryn Leonard supported the motion, but recommended the district work on curriculum and professional development before the laptops are rolled out to students.

Leonard cited Future Ready, a self-assessment sent to Rhode Island teachers, which gave the Newport district digital learning readiness a score of 5.7 out of 10. Leonard pointed out the areas she found troubling, including a 3 out of 10 for curriculum readiness and 5.5 out of 10 for professional learning.

“If our curriculum needs improvement and if our personalized instruction needs improvement, then I think the curriculum should be boosted first, as to how these Chromebooks should be used. I really feel if you have high expectations, you should have high performance,” she said.

Superintendent Colleen Jermain told the council that since the survey was completed there has been training and design around digital readiness.

Utilizing $300,000 in grants from the Barr and van Beuren foundations, the district is designing a model for student-centered learning at Rogers High School. Generally, a student-centered classroom is built on technology integration and puts the responsibility for the learning path in the hands of students. However, the details of the Newport model are still being drafted, said Jermain.

Additionally, the district has a planned roll-out and management plan for the Chromebooks. “We don’t just hand out the Chromebooks to the students,” said Jermain.

The websites students may visit and the programs they may download are also restricted, she said.

Newport School Committee member David Carlin opposed giving the schools the money for the purchase. “The $600,000 would not have been necessary if we gave you numbers that were accurate. We did not give you real numbers,” said Carlin, who told the council he was speaking as a resident, not as a committee member.

Last week, the school committee unanimously approved a $39.38 million budget for fiscal year 2017- 18. The new budget represents a two-percent, or $1 million, increase over last year’s budget. It did not include the laptops, as outlined in the strategic plan.

Responding to Carlin’s comments, Councilor Susan Taylor said that the city did not carelessly appropriate an amount to the school department during the budget process.

“We spent the entire month of June pouring over the numbers. We were well aware of the numbers. We made an informed, conscious decision,” she said.

Leonard asked the superintendent if the district would require more funds the following year.

“As always, we will try to do our best,” said Jermain. “Private-public partnerships are needed [in order] to be successful.”

Although the Newport Public Education Foundation is aiming to raise $1 million to establish a technology endowment fund to benefit students at Pell Elementary School, money from that fund will not be available until the goal is reached.

Councilor Lynn Ceglie thanked the finance department for coming up with a “creative solution” to fund the purchase without impacting the tax rate.

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