Since the Phenix City Board of Education hired him from Crenshaw County a year ago, superintendent Randy Wilkes has methodically unveiled his plan to improve the school system's instructional technology and make learning more engaging for students.
Part of that vision -- providing a take-home tablet computer for each student and teacher in grades 6-8 -- became tangible during Tuesday night's work session.
Administrators handed board members iPad Airs and demonstrated some of the features. Staff members have been unpacking the devices and loading them with about two dozen educational apps and the grade-appropriate electronic versions of textbooks. By the time the new school year starts Aug. 10, the approximate total of 1,500 students and 100 teachers at Phenix City Intermediate School and South Girard School will have high-tech instructional tools at their finger tips.
Online tutorials will be available in English and Spanish to instruct iPad users, and a video about the devices will be played at schools on Parent Night, said instructional technology specialist Tamara Sanders.
"For us, this is a stake in the ground," said David Mathis, the director of management information systems. "It literally is going to change the way we think."
Mathis compared the transformation to the first time the school district installed desktop computers in the classrooms. "Everybody was excited to be on the World Wide Web, and they had no idea where they were going," he said. "But this time, we have a little better idea where we're going."
Sanders added, "We keep reminding ourselves, how we do things next year at this time is going to be very different than how we've done things this summer. But we're OK with that. That's called progress."
The $750,000 expenditure is a wise investment in students, Wilkes told the Ledger-Enquirer after the work session.
"They will become more engaged in class work," he said. "They will become more engaged in the learning process -- bar none. They're coming to school already knowing how to work their parents' phones and iPads and everything. Then we put them in straight rows and desks and, by the way, here's a textbook. What? So this is going to level the playing field.
"It's going to create tremendous interest and engagement from the students, but I would say nothing replaces that teacher. You've still got to deliver that instruction. You've still got to engage the kids. You've still got to be knowledgeable of the subject matter and disseminate that."
His main concern about allowing students to take home tablet computers, Wilkes said, is that "they've got to take care of them and be responsible."
The iPads are in protective cases. According to the paperwork, Sanders said, the cases have been tested to protect each iPad 26 times from 4-foot drops. Asked whether she verified that claim, Sanders laughed and said, "No, but if any of you want me to try it out on your personal iPad, I'd be glad to do that."
Each iPad is labeled with the name of the student or teacher and inscribed with the school system's name. Sanders noted a thief wouldn't get much use out of one of those iPads "because it's got to be loaded in a Phenix City Public School."
The iPads will not be able to download games and music, the cameras will be turned off and certain websites will be blocked, administrators said. The board approved in February a policy defining acceptable use for the tablet computers.
The students and parents or guardians will be asked to sign a contract requiring them to pay the school system an insurance fee of $25 before receiving the device. A $25 deductible will be charged for a first repair and a $50 deductible for a second repair.
If the device is lost, stolen or damaged beyond repair, the student or parent/guardian will be required to pay for a new device ($395), the cover ($50) and the electronic textbooks (expected to be $14.99 apiece). No more than two devices will be provided to a student during one school year. Additional loss may result in forfeiture of use and other penalties at the discretion of the school.
The iPads are part of Wilkes' $3,225,000 grand plan to improve the system in the STEM subjects of science, technology, engineering and math. Other initiatives include: $1.7 million to construct a free-standing STEM academy of nearly 10,000 square feet on the PCIS campus; $350,000 for the Investigations math curriculum in grades K-5; $120,000 to employ three STEM lab facilitators; $80,000 to employ an instructional technology specialist; $75,000 to employ a STEM lab coordinator; $50,000 for the Carnegie Learning math curriculum in grades 6-8; $50,000 for grades K-8 to implement MasteryConnect, a software program that allows teachers to assess core standards, monitor student performance and make reports to parents and administrators; and $50,000 for wireless access points at PCIS and South Girard.
STEM academies are scheduled to open at PCIS (grades 6-7) and South Girard (grade 8) in August 2016. The academy at South Girard won't need a new building, just renovation of existing space. Wilkes has estimated that cost to be about $300,000.
The superintendent seeks an additional $1,955,453 for: STEM lab curriculum, hardware, software and furnishings; more wireless access points; and iPads for high school students starting in August 2016.