Monday, Sep 22, 2014
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School District overhauling info-tech department

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— The computers that help students research class projects or assist teachers in tracking student progress come with the usual downside.

On occasion, they crash.

And when they do, help doesn’t always swoop in right away. The Pasco County school district doesn’t have enough technicians to handle all the demands of 80 schools and more than 35,000 district-owned electronic devices.

Superintendent Kurt Browning and John Simon, director of the district’s Office for Technology and Information Services, say they hope to change that.

They propose a five-year reorganization of Simon’s department that, among other things, would improve the technology support that Browning and Simon acknowledge is lacking.

“Technology is getting into the hands of our children earlier and earlier,” Simon told the school board at a workshop last week. “They come to school ready for it and we are not ready.”

Keeping up with the latest in gadgetry and software sophistication is no snap. Technology advances at a rapid clip that Simon likened to a bullet train racing down the tracks.

“It’s enormous, the growth,” he said. “We need to get on that train. We are not going to keep up if we don’t.”

Under the first year of the reorganization proposal, the Office for Technology and Information Services would grow from 87 employees to 111 with 13 of the new positions being additional technology services technicians who would provide computer support to schools.

Much of the computer troubleshooting at schools used to be handled by technology specialists. Each school had one. A year ago, though, Browning merged three positions — technology specialist, media specialist and literacy coach — into one job.

The resulting hybrid, known as the information, communication and technology literacy coach, or ICT literacy coach for short, was to be a person on campus who could help teachers meld technology into their instructional practices.

In theory at least, the ICT literacy coach was not to be a Mr. and Ms. Fixit whom teachers called when computers malfunctioned or printers balked at their assigned tasks. Instead, the district created a team of technicians — modeled on Best Buy’s Geek Squad — that would respond when problems arose.

The district Geek Squad has 13 members, but that has proved to be too few to handle the demands of 80 schools. A year ago the district didn’t have the money in its budget to provide more.

The coming year’s budget looks to be better, and technology will be one of the priorities, Browning said, though after about six years of budget cutbacks all the district’s needs won’t be taken care of in one fell swoop.

“We’re not going to be able to fix six years of injury in one year,” Browning said.

Keeping technology in good shape becomes even more critical as more and more standardized testing is computer-based, Browning said.

The Pasco district and several others across the state found out just how critical April 22 when trouble arose with servers operated by Pearson Inc., the firm that administers the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Tests. Students sitting down to take FCAT were unable to log into the system.

“When Pearson went down this year, I think we all turned white, we all lost blood in our face,” Browning said.

Pearson and the Florida Department of Education worked through the night to correct that problem.

But then, two days later, the Pasco district’s Internet provider went down, creating more FCAT problems that this time were local to Pasco.

“The more computer-based testing we put on these systems, the more robust these systems must be,” Browning said.

He said “nothing is set in stone” with the proposal to reorganize the Office for Technology and Information Services, but added the district is playing catch-up and instructional practices are driven in large part by the technology available in classrooms.

“We’ve got to amp it up to catch up more quickly,” Browning said.

Board Chairwoman Alison Crumbley embraced the idea of increasing the number of technicians in the Geek Squad.

“That’s where we always seem to be lacking,” she said.

Board member Cynthia Armstrong said that’s what she hears, too.

“From school visits I have made,” Armstrong said, “there is a recurring theme about needing more of the Geek Squad presence in the schools.”

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