Fort Smith schools introduce technology early
and plan for a new career and technology center
with proposed millage increase
To help citizens understand the upcoming ballot measure to increase funding for the Fort Smith Public Schools, we asked district administrators to explain two items of the proposed use of the millage increase, both concerning technology:?the existing program providing laptops to students and plans for a future Career and Technology Center. Administrators may not advocate for or against a ballot measure. They are, however, available to explain and describe the district’s current uses of technology in education and programs it plans for the future.
What technology does the school district now provide for students?
“Four years ago we piloted a 1:1 device program at two elementary schools, Sunnymede and Morrison, and Ramsey Junior High,” Dr. Barry Owen, chief academic officer, explained. That’s one laptop computer for each student, which the student uses for school work and may take home, similar to the way textbooks are issued to students, traditionally.
The pilot program went well and the district moved ahead to equip all elementary students from the third grade and up with laptops.
There are currently about 7,500 devices with students in all elementary grades 3-6, Owen said. Devices for all students at all junior high schools, grades 7-9, will be issued this fall.
A line item in the proposed usage of the millage increase, developed by consensus of a Citizens Committee, sets a budget of $825,000 a year for replacement of the existing laptops on a four-year cycle. “We want to keep technology in the students’ hands at all grade levels,” Owen said.
“Here’s the challenge,” Dr. Doug Brubaker, superintendent, explained. “If you don’t have a revenue stream for replacements then you end up with 4 and 5 year old devices. They aren’t viable tools after that time. And we haven’y reached the high schools yet. To make the 1:1 device program viable, that’s the goal.”
Is the 1:1 device program effective?
“The devices gives students the ability to expand learning beyond the school site and the school day - they can use them at home,” Brubaker said. “In addition to issuing them 21st century tools, it gives students access to the very best resources. They have the opportunity to create products with these powerful tools.”
“It gives all students take-home devices for research, homework, projects, reading and collaboration and more,” Owen said. Laptop use creates efficiencies, he added. More educational materials are becoming digital. Instead of having textbooks that become outdated, “we have one device,” from which up-to-date, digital educational materials can be used, Brubaker added.
Dr. Ginni McDonald is the director of secondary education. After equipping students from grades 3-9 with laptops for six years, high school students will have built their academic work habits on using them, she said. “We, as educators, must reflect the changes we see in the world,”?she said.
Why does the millage usage proposal include a career and technology center??
From the district’s Vision 2023 five-year planning and a consensus of citizens’ committees to take those goals to reality, a strong recommendations emerged that the Board of Education prepare students, while in high school, for college and for career.
“This strategic plan calls for kids to graduate with both a plan for their future and a skill set,” Brubaker said. It is forseeable that information technology, healthcare and manufacturing-related learning may be areas of focus for careers in this region.
Currently, Fort Smith’s high schools offer a number of effective educational programs that students don’t have equal access to, Brubaker said, “because these programs are isolated to one high school campus or the other.”
The school district must provide the same opportunities to all students, which a central Career and Technology Center could house under one roof, he explained, especially if it includes high-tech or specialized equipment.
Students would come to the center instead of the district duplicating these learning environments, he said. The district would also like to expand student access to the existing WATC?(Western Arkansas Technology Center)?program, which provides juniors and seniors with the opportunity to earn college credit while still in high school. The center's curriculum serves as an extension of the high school curriculum by providing students with hands-on training in technical fields including automotive technology, computer engineering, computer graphics, criminal justice and welding technology, among others.
Some 157 students are now in WATC. The district would like to grow it to 300 students.
“We could expand by having a dedicated facility for it,” Brubaker explained. The Career and Technology Center is budgeted to be created in an existing facility.
This article appears in the May 2018 issue of Entertainment Fort Smith.