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3 Ways NYC Schools Stretch Their Technology Dollars

New York City schools take a look at staffing, the type of equipment they purchase and ways to extend the life of technology.

NEW YORK CITY — Over the last five years, Amber Charter School has brought in more laptops, tablets and interactive whiteboards, making it easier for teachers to find activities that match the different learning and engagement levels of each student.

“If you teach them the same thing, it’s wasting your time, so you want to bring the instruction to them more specifically,” said Dan Blackburn, special education teacher at Amber Charter School. “The technology helps with that tremendously.”

New York City schools like Amber Charter School and Mott Hall V are working hard to differentiate instruction with technology. And they’re bringing in more technology by tapping into public and private funding sources, taking a frugal approach to their budgets and maintaining technology so it lasts longer.

1. Explore outside funding opportunities

Grants provide an external source of money to fuel technology purchases, and that’s how Amber Charter School brought in carts of netbooks a number of years ago, said Nnenna Allen, a technology teacher. But because grant opportunities appear in so many different places, it would be helpful to have an app that lists all the low-income technology grant opportunities in one place, said Stephen Ewings, the information systems manager at the school.

“The ability to find out where to get the resources from is pretty difficult for a lot of schools,” Ewings said.

Last year, Mott Hall V funded 20 percent of its technology purchases through grants. The school was also able to earn at least one laptop cart over the last number of years through the New York Education Department’s iLearn program, which helps bring blended learning tools and content to schools.

And if policymakers come to visit, Mott Hall V Principal Peter Oroszlany asks them what they can do for the school. When then-New York State Sen. Ruben Diaz stopped by one time, he responded by getting them seven interactive whiteboards.

Public-private partnerships also provide a much-needed source of technology funding for schools. And New York City should take advantage of the opportunity to build more public/private partnerships that support schools, said Alexandra Meis, co-founder and director of community partnerships for Kinvolved, an attendance tracking software company.

2. Examine budget savings

Teachers and technology are both important pieces of the puzzle to help students learn. So Principal Oroszlany sets his budget with those two pieces in mind.

His first priority is hiring more teachers than he needs and hiring an IT person. While Oroszlany still has veteran teachers, he also brings on staff members who are newer to teaching so they can relate to students and earn a lower salary than long-time teachers.

His second priority is technology. “We’re all trying to find ways in which we can get some more technology in here,” Oroszlany said. “You have to be open-minded and frugal with the budget.”

That’s why Mott Hall V experiments with different ways to save money on computers. For the same money that the school spends on a regular laptop, hardware technology specialist Clemente Marte can buy two Chromebooks and still have money left over for things like toner.

3. Extend the life of existing technology

Seven years ago, Mott Hall V had spotty wireless and no computers or interactive whiteboards, said Alex Paraskevaides, an instructional technology specialist. But now the school has a number of laptop carts, teacher tablets and interactive whiteboards so that learning is more interactive.

By hiring an in-house IT staff member, Mott Hall V has made the most out of its technology purchases. And the school is fortunate to have someone on site, because many schools rely on the New York City Education Department for tech support — a tall task in the nation’s largest school system.

Marte researches technology options and figures out whether they’re cost effective. He also keeps older computers working by cleaning out their guts, reimaging them and increasing memory and software.

Another way schools stretch their computer use is by virtualizing their desktops so that old computers run like new. Software programs and Web pages open more quickly thanks to a server close to the broadband pipe that houses files and applications, allowing for increased computer performance — desktop machines throughout the school to act like real computers with operating systems.

And schools don’t have to worry about maintenance; it’s included in their contract so that the technology will still be usable, said Jonathan Hefter, CEO of Neverware. “We’ve seen schools with two-year-old laptops that no longer work because they don’t have the resources to maintain them like the big companies out there.”

Though big city schools face tough challenges, they’re working hard to provide both talented teachers and technology to their students. By exploring outside funding, examining their budgets with an open mind and extending the life of their technology, they’re making sure their investments pay off so they can help students succeed.