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D-156 concerned with ‘weakened’ technology foundation

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McHENRY – District 156 marked an academic milestone of sorts this school year with its record student enrollment in college preparatory courses.

Just within the past two years, the number of high school students taking Advanced Placement courses more than tripled. In 2008, up to 60 AP exams were administered. In 2012, 300 exams were taken, with 202 passing.

At the same time, in spite of the positive trend of more students taking challenging courses, officials are growing concerned with the district’s increasingly outdated technology infrastructure and have prioritized technology expansion as a curricular goal.

The McHenry-based high school district currently maintains a limited technology with a “thin client network,” said Brent Raby, district director of curriculum and technology.

Even if the district distributed iPad devices to every teacher, “our infrastructure, how it’s currently designed, couldn’t handle that,” he said.

The focus on educational technology has greater urgency for district leaders as new Common Core measures are under way in districts statewide and in light of today’s competitive global markets.

The district’s technology plan – which was presented in the spring – stems from feedback gathered from stakeholders last school year. Providing more opportunities with wireless technology for student learning and staff development came up as a top suggestion.

New Common Core curriculum measures, setting revised benchmarks for academic progress, are under way at school districts statewide for full implementation by the 2014-15 year. Curriculum standards were adopted in 1997, according to the Illinois State Board of Education.

Tied to the impending update is the role of technology in classrooms.

Computers at both campuses are on average 10 years old, and classrooms lack projectors, meaning that teachers have to share mobile projectors.

“Information is widely available these days, and students are less dependent on textbooks,” Raby said. “They have to be able to pull information from multiple sources, be able to communicate it back out. Access, now, is so important. To teach those skills to the students, you have to provide that access.”

Administrators are working to present “concrete answers of what technology could do for students and teachers, what those could be” by the end of next month, Raby said.

Throughout the school year, Raby and his administrative team have visited other school districts, including Leyden High School District 212 and New Trier Township High School District 203, to see how schools use devices such as netbooks and cloud-based Chromebooks in classrooms.

“New Trier obviously has a different financial setting than we do, but it’s our responsibility to look at everything that’s out there, not just specific schools,” Raby said.

“The aim is to create an environment that’s going to fit our needs and responsibilities because it is quite a large investment.”

In the district’s December newsletter to parents, administrators explained that the hope is to create a “long-lasting structure, which includes wireless transmission of information” and expand the size of the “information highway needed to support resources needed by teachers and students in research and learning.”

“Teachers and students are not able to teach or learn using available resources due to technology limitations,” the district said in the newsletter. “If we were to make the analogy to the condition of a home, we could say the technology in District 156 has a weakened foundation. The structure, from top to bottom, needs repair.”

Come spring, the district has a chance at securing $2.2 million in interest rate savings to go toward these improvements. The anticipated savings comes from refinancing district bonds totaling $29 million.

However, whether the district keeps the savings will depend on local taxpayers who vote in the April 9 referendum. The ballot question will ask whether voters approve of the district using the money for technology and infrastructure improvements for both campuses. If the referendum fails, the savings will go to taxpayers, applied as a slight reduction in their tax bills. For the owner of a $200,000 house, the reduction amounts to $14 a year.

Administrators and school board officials know convincing property owners won’t be an easy sell, especially after last week when the board approved an 8 percent tax levy increase.

At the Dec. 18 meeting, Dave Miller, a resident who also owns a marina shop in town, opined that he’s struggling with expenses that “escalate every year.”

“Yet, for the past eight to 10 years, I haven’t increased my charges to my customers. A lot of my customers are local people and they’re struggling. I’ve cut so many corners. There’s no corner [left].”

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