When Rita Gardner conducted her first classroom observation as principal of Shields Elementary School, she was struck by how little teaching had changed since she was a teacher at Shields 14 years earlier.

“I was sitting next to a little boy who had a whole world going on in his desk with spacemen and stick figures and action heroes,” Gardner recalls of that day in 1991. “It occurred to me the world had changed, and the students had changed with video games and Nintendo, but education just wasn’t keeping up. Nor were we preparing students with skills for real life.”

As a career counselor at Chicago Vocational High School, Gardner says she watched technology make many jobs obsolete. “The entire print shop department was phased out,” she says. “Now, there’s not a trade around that does not use a computer in some capacity.”

Gardner shared her observations with the faculty at Shields, which slowly began to learn about computers and weave them into their instructional program. Today, students in all grades use computers in core subjects. Each classroom has six computers, and the school has several learning labs, for a total of 362 computers. The machines vary greatly in capacity and age but remain compatible and connected, which serves the school’s emphasis on collaboration among teachers.

The combination of technology and teacher collaboration, says Gardner, “revitalized the learning environment here.”

As a computer powerhouse, Shields, located in Brighton Park, has few peers in Chicago, where technological advances depend largely on the interest of individual principals, faculties and local school councils. Left largely on their own, many Chicago schools have struggled to obtain funding and secure equipment.

Some argue that the reliance on local school councils relieves the School Reform Board of having to go to bat for all 589 schools, forcing schools to compete with each other for limited resources.

“What you see systemwide is about 20 showcase schools, and the rest of us are struggling to get on,” says Leslie Fretzin, technology coordinator and computer teacher for Beaubien Elementary School in Jefferson Park.

There’s been tremendous duplication of effort, too, many in the district say. However, technology advocates see strong benefits in localism.

Barbara Means, senior researcher with the Center for Technology in Learning, Menlo Park, Calif., acknowledges that a centralized school system offers advantages, including economies of scale. But “cookie-cutter solutions” to technology can “leave schools feeling disenfranchised,” says Means, who is working with several Chicago high schools. Giving schools the opportunity to develop their own technology programs, consistent with their achievement goals, is important, she says.

Louis Gomez, co-director of the Center for Learning Technologies in Urban Schools at Northwestern University, also sees value in local control. To be successful, schools have to think seriously about what technology means to them and how they’ll use it effectively, he says. The answers will be different for every school, regardless of the district, he adds.

Schools face common challenges, though. They include:

Difficulties with technology planning. The Illinois State Board of Education requires all school districts to submit technology plans to receive grants and supplemental state and federal funding for technology. Given the number and diversity of schools in Chicago, the state also requires each Chicago school to submit its own technology plan. Although some schools with similar interests or common external partners have been allowed to submit group plans, most have submitted, or are working to submit, individual plans.

Few doubt the benefit of a technology plan that’s clearly aligned with a school’s curriculum and goals. However, most schools lack the expertise to develop them, many educators report. As of this spring, only 315 of the district’s 589 schools had had their technology plans approved, despite a streamlined process, according to Shirley Berry, director of the Illinois State Board of Education’s Area VII Hub. The hub, which receives both state and local funds, helps schools with staff development, grant writing and technology planning. According to Berry, the most common reason a plan is rejected is a school’s failure to convey how it will use technology to engage students in learning.

However, some technology coordinators whose plans were rejected suspect that the plans had not been read thoroughly. “We were told we hadn’t included the school’s report card in the table of contents,” says Fretzin of Beaubien. “I said, ‘Yes, we did. It’s on page 80. You didn’t read it, did you?'”

Fretzin also chafes at format requirements. “They wanted our teaching strategies numbered. Ours were bulleted. We were told the strategies weren’t there, but they were. They just weren’t numbered.”

A number of schools also had to rewrite technology plans when the Federal Communications Commission changed the regulations to obtain so-called E-rate discounts, which will reduce the costs of going online.

Technology plans remain the gateway to district resources, too. At a regional meeting of principals and technology coordinators, an architect overseeing school wiring announced that the board would finance a T1 connection to every school in the district. (T1 lines speed the transmission of data.) However, schools whose technology plans had not yet been approved likely would have to wait two to three years to receive the discounts they’d need to connect their computers to the Internet and to the school system’s wide-area network. When one technology coordinator revealed her school’s intentions to use its own funds to wire the school to the Internet, the architect warned that there would be no guarantee the work would not have to be redone if it didn’t meet the district’s network standards.

Lack of money for technical support. In the summer of 1997, the school district closed its central drop-off facility for computer repair, a move that left schools responsible for maintaining and troubleshooting their own equipment and networks. Few schools, though, have the money to fund a full-time technology coordinator or technical support specialist.

As a result, schools have turned to librarians or computer teachers for planning, troubleshooting and grant writing. Of those interviewed, many complained that negotiating with the bureaucracy, fulfilling the requirements for submitting a plan, applying for grants and learning about various technologies constitute a full-time job. One claimed to know of several technology coordinators or technology teachers who left the district for jobs in neighboring suburban schools where less would be demanded of them.

Relying on outside contractors is problematic, too. Many schools say they are reluctant to run up billing for outside services and instead ask staff members to attempt to fix the problem. However, if the school’s technology becomes unreliable, technology integration will falter.

Some schools have found their own solutions to this problem. Shields, which receives over $1 million in state Chapter 1 money, has a full-time technology coordinator who has become so familiar with the equipment that she now makes minor repairs herself. She’s also taught 7th- and 8th-graders to troubleshoot simple problems.

Aging facilities that impede wiring. The School Board has agreed to install a T1 line and a network server in every Chicago school, beginning mainly with newly constructed annexes and additions. According to the district’s technology plan, half its schools have no Internet access, and those that do typically have a single dial-up modem for the entire school.

Schools must fund hookups to classrooms, computer labs and libraries. Old schools without new annexes face formidable barriers. In many cases, construction work has been held up when lead paint, asbestos or foot-thick walls have made it difficult or impossible to string cable. The costs can be high. Wiring work alone for one older school building was estimated at $75,000 and had to be budgeted over a five-year period.

Lack of teacher training, and teacher resistance. Many teachers are reluctant to move beyond drill and practice or word processing. One teacher complained that the two computers in his classroom are a distraction, and that many students cut short their time on lessons so they can tinker with the computers.

Another pressure point within the system: More than ever before, teachers are being held accountable for raising standardized test scores. Yet dips in test scores are common during periods of technology integration, observes Karen Percak, technology coordinator and librarian at Wildwood Elementary School on Chicago’s Far Northwest Side. Under the gun, many older teachers fall back on traditional teaching methods.

“As long as we are held accountable for standards only viewed by how students score on tests, and those tests don’t speak to some of the skills addressed by computers, you’re going to find resistance on the part of teachers to using technology,” says Percak, who trains teachers from Wildwood and other schools in the use of computers and instructional software. “I’d like to see the board waive one year for this accountability during the setup period. I can predict there would be tremendous gains later, just not right away.”

Disillusionment. In large urban school systems, it’s not uncommon for time lines to expand from months to years. For example, all Chicago schools were supposed to have T1 lines installed before Christmas 1998, but that completion date was moved first to February 1999 and then to June 1999 or beyond.

“What we needed to do yesterday needed to have been done the day before that,” acknowledges Henry Parker, manager of the district’s Department of Learning Technologies. Among the factors Parker cites are the age of the district’s buildings and an insufficient number of contractors available for the massive job of linking the district’s 589 schools.

Those delays leave principals and teachers wondering when—or even if— they will have full access. It also means that many educators become less willing to uphold their end of the paperwork and time commitments needed to secure technology for their schools. “We’re no further along than we were last year at this time,” a technology coordinator remarked at a regional meeting last fall. “I’m really sick of this.”

Still others report that they’ve been naive about the complexity of securing infrastructure for their schools. The T1 lines the district is installing are to be used for administrative purposes foremost and for tapping into the district’s wide-area network. Most lines are being installed in new buildings or annexes or near administrative office areas rather than computer labs, libraries or classrooms. Schools must fund the wiring and voice and data cable connections on their own, a task that involves an intricate application process for state and federal funding, discounts, grants and supplements—or extensive fundraising.

Some administrators also say they fear the district doesn’t have the foresight to sustain technology into the future. “The board looks at this more as something like building an addition to the school,” says Elena Savoy of Wildwood. “It’s sort of like, OK, you’ve got what you wanted and that should be it. But it doesn’t work like that. The technology continues to change, and maintaining it will be a challenge.”

Chicago’s systemwide technology plan calls for schools to shoulder the responsibility for maintaining and upgrading equipment.

Gaps in funding. State Chapter 1 drives many technology programs in Chicago. “If it weren’t for this poverty money … we wouldn’t be able to do it,” Savoy says of her school’s effort. In 1993-94, the school had a 93 percent poverty rate and used $60,000 of its Chapter 1 money to buy 15 Macintoshes, some printers and tables. Thurgood Marshall School used Chapter 1 funds to hire a professional grant writer to drum up technology funding.

“That’s why you don’t want to lose your low-income students,” says Savoy.

“We scramble for enrollment,” acknowledges Pam Coleman, technology coordinator at Solomon Elementary School in North Park. “Many schools have been known to overload classrooms to obtain bigger totals for state Chapter 1 funds.”

Federal Title I also plays a role, but at fewer schools. Chicago concentrates this money in schools with the largest percentage of low-income students. This year, schools with a poverty rate of less than 56 percent got none. “We don’t serve all schools,” says Sandra Tolbert, manager of grants administration and development for the school system. “There aren’t enough dollars.”

Contractors who prey on unwary principals, librarians and technology coordinators. While the School Board has identified three major contractors for infrastructure work, many smaller operators call schools to secure contracts. In many cases, the contractors are most interested in using such agreements to prove they have worked with the Chicago School Board. “It’s a feather in the cap, a marketing tool for doing business in the Chicago region,” one principal explains.

Principals say some contractors resort to trickery, posing as representatives of larger contractors or passing themselves off as School Board representatives. Margaret Niedermaier, principal of Chappell Elementary School in Lincoln Square, says she received a letter that looked as though it had come from the Chicago Public Schools. Reading the fine print, she determined that it hadn’t. “You had to search, to read the fine print,” the principal says. “It happens constantly over the fax machine.”

Answer unclear

Can a decentralized district overcome such obstacles? Researchers say the answer to that question isn’t clear yet. Chicago’s central office has made efforts to help schools, but that support is stretched thin.

The district’s Department of Learning Technologies has 26 teacher trainers, each assigned to a group of 20 to 25 schools. All former teachers, they do on-site teacher training and provide information on writing technology plans, using the Internet and networks and developing instructional materials.

Demand for teacher training is high. Last October, the district sponsored a technology training conference for classroom teachers at McCormick Place convention center. The one-day event drew 4,500 participants, far more than anticipated. Approximately 1,500 had to be turned away, reports Dan Anderson, director of teacher trainers.

Last spring, the non-profit Chicago Panel on School Policy reported that half of the staff members in the elementary schools it surveyed said that lack of teacher training had limited the introduction of technology in their schools. A similar percentage also said they had not received enough training to be comfortable using technology in the classroom.

The sheer number of schools and programs competing for central technology resources—and the accompanying politics—also take a toll, says Dany Fleming, a research analyst with Leadership for Quality Education. Political pressures often force the district to distribute resources evenly among the city’s six regions, even if equity means no school gets enough to do the job properly, Fleming says. Corporate offers for technology partnerships are divvied up in ways that sometimes include schools that aren’t ready but are in the right region.

“It’s the politics of a large district,” says Fleming. When the district offers a pilot program, it’s faced with the prospect of “a lot of people banging at the door.”

Another complication: Many schools don’t know how to use the centralized resources that are available. The Chicago Systemic Initiative, part of the National Science Foundation’s Urban Systemic Initiative, surveyed 5,500 teachers and found that while two-thirds had used a computer, 43 percent said that they were either unaware of or had not attended any of the district’s technology training workshops.

Often, too, schools aren’t clear about which responsibilities are theirs and which are the central office’s. That’s especially true for linking schools to the district’s wide-area network. The district has a good idea of its responsibilities, says Fleming, but most principals, who must oversee their own schools’ wiring, don’t.

“You start talking about electrical systems and the different kinds of wiring and when you get down to the nitty-gritty, principals’ eyes just glaze over,” Fleming says.

The district has attempted to address that problem, sending out networking teams to assess each school’s needs and discuss responsibilities. However, by the time teams visit all the schools in the system, prices and network configurations likely will have changed, says Fleming.

“Scale is just a major obstacle,” says Fleming. “It makes people at the macro level very nervous.”

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