Charlottesville City Schools students complete school work using Fujitsu tablets Credit: Credit: Charlottesville City Schools

After a 2011 rollout of about 2,000 Fujitsu tablets that saw technical problems ranging from easily breakable screens to sluggish speeds and cumbersome use, Charlottesville City Schools hopes its next round of devices — to be distributed to students in August — are more reliable.

That was the message Jeff Faust, director of technology for city schools, told the School Board on Thursday during an update on Blended Learning to Advance Student Thinking — the division’s effort to provide computers for all middle and high school students.

“If the teachers don’t feel like they have 100 percent or nearly 100 percent reliability on the device, it’s a lot harder for them to integrate it into their instructional plan,” Faust said. “Teachers want to know that they can count on the fact that when students power on their device, that it’s going to work.”

Initial estimates for the new laptops over the next three years range from about $1.1 million to about $1.3 million, depending on the computer’s manufacturer, budget documents show.

In its first four years, BLAST cost about $2.4 million, about $1.9 million of which paid for the laptops.

“When we’re asking our kids to write, create or design, a device without a keyboard or a touch pad limits that to a certain degree,” Faust said.

To determine how the program could be improved, last spring Faust and a steering committee began reviewing BLAST and the problems teachers identified with the tablets.

In addition to reliability, the teachers expressed a desire for laptops, not tablets — an appeal the division has reflected in a current request for proposals for the more rugged devices.

“When we’re asking our kids to write, create or design, a device without a keyboard or a touch pad limits that to a certain degree,” Faust said.

More charging stations, extending the one-to-one initiative down to the third and fourth grades and allowing high school students to use their own devices were also identified as needs.

Additionally, the steering committee suggested that the division sign a three-year contract — rather than a four-year contract — and find a device that can be easily integrated to support instruction, rather than attempting to locate a device that will meet the diverse needs of about 2,000 students.

“In trying to select a device that does everything, you end up selecting a device that does nothing well,” Faust said. “It’s more important to have a device in a student’s hands that only does 90 percent of everything that we need them to do, but that does those things really well.”

This year, Charlottesville piloted Lenovo laptops that run on the Google Chrome operating system with 300 sixth-graders at Walker Upper Elementary School. Faust said the pilot has gone “extremely well,” with 180 — or 93 percent — of teacher and student respondents recommending that the division purchase Chrome devices.

“What was really promising through the pilot is that we saw less than half as much damage to the device as we did with the tablets,” Faust said. “We went from repairing about one screen per week to repairing about one screen per month.”

Despite the public outcry parents and teachers expressed about the tablets, Lisa Drake, president of the Charlottesville High School PTO, said the devices provide access to information for many families.

“It’s a great way to put everyone on a level playing field in terms of the communication they can receive from the schools,” Drake said, adding that she’s heard only positive feedback for Canvas — software that allows the division’s teachers to communicate with students and their families.

The board had not debated this matter by press time.

Extended school day

The School Board opted not to vote on staff’s recent proposal to revisit literacy instruction and extend the school day for struggling students. Ultimately, some board members said they felt the proposal lacked details, was rushed and — due to the approximately $560,000 that could be reallocated within the division — should be discussed during the budget cycle.

Last month, staff pitched the idea to support the approximately 30 percent of the division’s students who are reading below grade level.

The board did, however, support using $85,000 to reinstate a literacy lead teacher position the board removed during the fiscal year 2015 budget cycle and to retain the Book Buddies program. Grant opportunities will be researched, as well.

School Board member Jennifer McKeever said she supports literacy instruction, but said the division lacks a vision for literacy.

Board members Ned Michie and Colette Blount both argued that the initiative was being rushed and that they wanted more information.

“I think to make this decision we need to be fully informed, and I don’t feel that way,” Blount said.

But board member Leah Puryear said all of education rests on the ability to read, and that the division was trying to tackle a large problem.

“These young men and young women will learn to read at a level that will make them competitive,” Puryear said.

School Board member Juandiego Wade said he supported delaying the vote, but said the questions won’t change next year.

“Ultimately, we’re going to have to realize that we need to make a decision,” Wade said. “We can’t stay where we are.”