internet improvements

Indiana promises to shore up school internet access — and it shouldn’t cost districts much at all

PHOTO: Courtesy of the Indiana Department of Education
State Superintendent Jennifer McCormick greets elementary school students in Decatur Township at the internet partnership announcement Tuesday.

Indiana officials announced a new partnership on Tuesday with the nonprofit EducationSuperHighway aimed at improving high-speed internet access in public school classrooms.

“To be ready for the jobs of the future, today’s students need the exposure and opportunity provided by quality digital learning experiences,” said Gov. Eric Holcomb, who was at the announcement today in Decatur Township.

As Indiana continues its work developing a new computer-based state test, the ability for schools to have reliable connectivity is particularly important. Test researchers have pushed lawmakers and policymakers for years to expand computer-based testing, which is cheaper and allows for types of tests that could better measure student learning. But internet access has been a sticking point.

Rural schools, in particular, have said they struggled to connect. In 2016, about 80 percent of Indiana students took tests online, according to the state department of education.

And while 98 percent of Indiana classrooms meet federal minimum recommendations for bandwidth, 38,500 students are still without enough internet support in their classrooms. Additionally, there are still 30 schools without high-speed fiber connections, and 88 percent of districts don’t meet national standards for affordable broadband.

The partnership with EducationSuperHighway is meant to fill in the gaps. The organization, founded in 2012, supports states and school districts in their efforts to connect classrooms to high-speed internet services.

Evan Maxwell, EducationSuperHighway’s CEO, said the arrangement with Indiana should come at low or no cost to schools themselves. More than $47 million in federal funds has been earmarked for Indiana and $2 million in state contributions were set aside in the state’s most recent budget.

“We’re looking forward to working with state leaders, school districts and service providers across the state to ensure that every Hoosier student has equal access to high-speed connectivity and the education opportunity that it allows,” he said.

Marwell said the organization will work with school districts to figure out what internet problems exist and how to fix them. They’ll also work with local internet service providers to offer more options to schools. In all of these projects, the federal and state money will be used to shore up existing internet service or install WiFi for the first time.

Marwell said work will begin this school year and over next summer, with the hopes of getting all schools up to speed in about two years. That won’t quite be in time for spring of 2019, when Indiana is planning to give its new computer-based state test, the ILEARN test, for the first time.

The state in the past has been hesitant about moving toward a test that depends heavily on computers. In meetings of the state commission charged with replacing ISTEP last year, Sen. Dennis Kruse, a Republican from Auburn and head of the Senate Education Committee, said scaling back the paper test option could be costly because it would force the state to address technology and internet needs in rural or outdated schools — or shift that burden to cash-strapped districts themselves.

“If we move to all computerized testing, we’ll have to make a significant investment,” Kruse said during an ISTEP meeting last fall. The EducationSuperHighway partnership should eliminate that hurdle.

ILEARN will likely be “computer-adaptive,” which means students get questions that get easier or harder based on their answers. While these kinds of tests can be translated on paper, it’s not ideal. A couple of years ago, Indiana studies of online vs. paper tests have shown that paper tests, in certain subjects, could be easier than online tests. Scores had to be adjusted at the time to make up for that difference.

Overall, the partnership will help close a major gap for schools across the entire state, said state Superintendent Jennifer McCormick

“We have to have capacity in our districts to get it done,” McCormick said. “With curriculum, with instruction, with assessment, the demands are huge.”

Finding a home

Denver school board permanently co-locates charter elementary in middle school building

Students and staffers at Rocky Mountain Prep's first charter school in Denver cheer in 2012. (Photo by The Denver Post)

A Denver elementary charter school that was temporarily granted space in a shuttering district-run middle school building will now be housed there permanently.

The school board voted Thursday to permanently place Rocky Mountain Prep Southwest charter school in the Kepner Middle School building, where it is sharing space this year with three other school programs. Such co-locations can be controversial but have become more common in a district with skyrocketing real estate prices and ambitious school quality goals.

Rocky Mountain Prep Southwest is part of a homegrown charter network that has shown promising academic results. The network also has a school in Aurora and is expected to open a third Denver school next year in the northwest part of the city.

Rocky Mountain Prep Southwest was first placed at Kepner for the 2015-16 school year. The placement was supposed to be temporary. The district had decided the year before to phase out low-performing Kepner and replace it a new district-run middle school, Kepner Beacon, and a new charter middle school, STRIVE Prep Kepner, which is part of a larger network. The district also temporarily placed a third charter school there: Compass Academy.

Compass has since moved out of Kepner but the other four schools remain: Rocky Mountain Prep Southwest, Kepner Beacon, STRIVE Prep Kepner and the Kepner Legacy Middle School, which is on track to be completely phased out and closed by June 2019.

In a written recommendation to the school board, district officials acknowledged that permanently placing Rocky Mountain Prep Southwest at Kepner would create a space crunch.

The Kepner campus has the capacity to serve between 1,100 and 1,500 students, the recommendation says. Once all three schools reach full size, officials expect the schools will enroll a total of approximately 1,250 students. Rocky Mountain Prep Southwest currently serves students in preschool through third grade with a plan to add more grades.

“DPS facilities staff are currently working with all three schools to create a long‐term vision for the campus, including facility improvements that ensure all three schools have what they need to continue to excel,” says the recommendation from Chief Operating Officer David Suppes and Director of Operations and Support Services Liz Mendez.

District staff tried to find an alternate location for Rocky Mountain Prep Southwest but were unsuccessful, the recommendation says. The district does not have many available buildings, and competition for them among district-run and charter schools can be fierce. In northeast Denver, seven secondary schools are currently vying for the use of a shuttered elementary.

Future of Schools

Indianapolis needs tech workers. IPS hopes that George Washington will help fill that gap.

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy

Indiana companies are looking for workers with computer expertise, and Indianapolis Public Schools leaders want their students to fill that gap.

Next year, George Washington High School will launch a specialized information technology academy designed to give students the skills to pursue careers in IT — and the exposure to know what jobs even exist.

“Half of what kids aspire to be is either someone they know does it or they’ve seen it on TV,” said Karen Jung, president of Nextech, a nonprofit that works to increase computer science preparation in K-12 schools. Nextech is partnering with IPS to develop the new IT program at George Washington.

For teens who don’t know anyone working in computer science, meeting role models is essential, Jung said. When teens see women of color or artists working in computer sciences, they realize there are opportunities for people like them.

“Once we put them in front of and inside of workplaces … it clicks,” Jung said. They believe “they would belong.”

The IT program is one of three academies that will open in George Washington next year as part of a broad plan to close nearly half of the district’s high schools and add specialized focus areas at the four remaining campuses. In addition to the IT academy, George Washington will have programs in: advanced manufacturing, engineering, and logistics; and business and finance.

The district is also moving to a model without neighborhood high schools. Students will be expected to choose high schools based on focus area rather than location. This year, many current high schoolers were required to reapply in an effort to make sure they enroll in academies that fit their interests.

The district will host a showcase of schools to help parents and students with their selections. The showcase runs from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday at the Indiana State Museum.

Stan Law, principal of Arlington High School now, will take over George Washington next year. (Arlington will close at the end of this year.) He said the new academies offer an opportunity for students to see what they need to master — from soft skills to knowledge — to get good jobs when they graduate.

“I want kids to really make the connection of the purpose of high school,” Law said. “It is that foundation for the rest of your life, in terms of the quality of life that you are going to live.”

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Stan Law

When the IT academy launches next year, students who select the program will be able to spend about one to two classes per year focused on information technology, said Ben Carter, who runs career and technical education for IPS.

Carter hopes the academies will reshape George Washington and other IPS campuses by connecting potential careers with the work students do everyday at school. Students who share a focus area will be in a cohort, and they will share many of the same core classes such as English, math and history, said Carter. Teachers, in turn, will be able to relate what students are studying in their history class to projects they are working on in the IT program, for example.

To show students what a career in information technology might look like, students will have the chance to tour, connect with mentors and intern at local companies.

“If I’m in one of these career classes — I’m in software development, but then I get to go to Salesforce and walk through and see the environment, to me as a student, that’s inspiring,” said Carter. “It’s like, ‘oh, this is what I can have.’ ”

He added. “It increases engagement but also gives them a true sense of what the career is.”