Sisters Middle School expands Chromebook program

Program receives $50,000 gift from Hoodoo

By Tyler Leeds / The Bulletin

Published Aug 22, 2014 at 12:01AM

The Sisters School District will expand a project that gives middle-schoolers their own Google Chromebooks after it received a $50,000 gift from Hoodoo Recreation.

Chromebooks, unlike traditional laptops, have minimal internal hardware and function mostly as portals to the Web.

Last year’s Sisters Middle School sixth-graders were part of a pilot program that explored coupling every student with a device, an approach educators call 1-to-1 instruction.

As that cohort continues into seventh grade with the same Chromebooks, the incoming sixth-graders will start middle school with their own computers.

“I’m really grateful for the gift, as it’s going to allow us to just keep moving forward,” Sisters Middle School Principal Marshall Jackson said. “Last year, there was a fee that we asked students to pay. There were scholarships, but the idea was to offset the cost of maintenance. This year, we won’t have that fee, and having the donation allows us to respect the economic times we’re in.”

The $50,000 will add 120 Chromebooks, as well as charging stations, to the school’s fleet. Jackson said last year’s sixth-graders seemed more engaged in coursework and were able to collaborate on projects more fluidly, using their Chromebooks to share resources on the web.

“Schools can’t just put our heads in the sand when it comes to technology,” Jackson said. “We need to embrace it as tools our students will need for the rest of their lives. Our perspective is, we need to teach them how to use these tools.”

Not everything has been perfect. Jackson said getting teachers up to speed on how to integrate Chromebooks into instruction is difficult, as “there’s just not a lot of money for professional development.”

The 1-to-1 instruction allowed by the program helps to overcome inequalities among students who may have different levels of digital access, said Jason Tomassini, communications director for Digital Promise, a federally created nonprofit that promotes and studies the integration of technology into education.

“Going way back, only some people had access to radios or TVs. Now everybody needs access to the Internet,” he said. “The role of schools is to provide learning opportunities for all students, and technology is a great way to do that, because it provides easy access to information and overcomes barriers to access certain students may face.”

Tomassini added that granting access to every student also allows for more individualized instruction.

“If you think about the way you try to research a project, you can do that all on your own now, and having access allows you to explore what interests you,” he said.

Sisters is not the only district to pursue 1-to-1 instruction. This school year, Bend-La Pine Schools will expand its program, which uses Apple iPads instead of Chromebooks. Last year, about 3,800 iPads were handed out; 5,000 more will soon be given to students once school is back in session. Chromebooks and iPads are quite different, as the Google product resembles a small, traditional laptop while the Apple device relies on a touchscreen.

“We like to say deciding whether one tool is better than another is not the right question to ask,” Tomassini said. “Schools that have worked with us have been successful when they have a vision with learning at the center, and once you have that, then you decide on technology. We’ve seen schools fail and succeed with the exact same technology, so I think it’s really about how the program is integrated.”

Todd Pilch, Sisters School District’s director of technology, said the decision to use Chromebooks instead of iPads revolved around money.

“Chromebooks have a much lower price point than iPads,” he said. “They come in around $280 per device, including licensing, compared to over $400 for iPads.”

Pilch added that Chromebooks also come with physical keyboards — a feature that must be bought as an add-on for iPads.

“We’ve been notified (by the Oregon Department of Education) that for testing we will be required to have physical keyboards, and to add them to iPads would cost between $40 to $80,” Pilch said.

In May, Bend-La Pine Schools tested external keyboards, running into issues with wireless varieties. Although they’re taking different approaches, both Sisters and Bend-La Pine hope to bring devices to every student in their districts.

“The grand vision is we will, hopefully sooner than later, have a device for digital learning in the hands of every student,” Pilch said. “We don’t know how much time it will take, but it’s our vision for everyone to have access.”

— Reporter: 541-633-2160, tleeds@bendbulletin.com