WESTERLY — The School Committee Tuesday endorsed a plan to provide Westerly High School freshmen with new laptop computers this fall. They also discussed a plan to add an item in the 2020-21 budget to continue buying laptops for incoming freshmen.
The “one to one” initiative, spearheaded by WHS principal Michael Hobin, will use a $35,000 private donation to buy some of the computers. Hobin said $47,000 more will be needed to provide the remaining computers, but he has identified some surpluses in the budget to cover the cost, plus a portion of $32,000 that was “double budgeted” for school testing.
Hobin said he initiated the project because he was concerned about low-income students being left behind because of limited access to technology, specifically laptops.
“For me this initiative has always been about access and equity,” Hobin said. “If it’s one observation I have it’s the difference between kids who have access and kids that do not.”
“It is very clear to me how desperate some kids are to have access to information and technology,” he added.
Hobin said during times when teachers don’t have enough laptops to go around, some students must resort to using their mobile phones.
“The cellphone has become the computer for so many students,” Hobin said. “While they’re researching for their papers or their content, in come the text messages, in come the social media posts. It’s a distraction.”
Hobin also noted that some teachers have tried to implement Google Classroom only to find that some students don’t have access to the program at home.
“We try to keep the library open until 3 o’clock simply so students can use the technology,” Hobin said. “But some kids can’t get to the library. If you’re out in Bradford and you don’t have access, it’s a long way to the library.”
Hobin said that, beyond the lack of laptops, the school is in dire need of Wi-Fi upgrades. Businesses in the community, he said, may be willing to partner with the school and offer free Wi-Fi for students who need it.
“You can have a lot of kids on computers, and the network slows down immediately,” Hobin said. “We need to get access to a bigger network and a wider highway.”
“We only have so many hard-wired computers to put kids onto do our state testing,” Hobin said. “It occurred to me that we couldn’t take the risk of gathering all the Chromebooks in the school and have the WiFi not work.”
According to interim director of technology Mike Sujka, Wi-Fi upgrades will be done this July.
Hobin said software was available that can monitor every student screen in the classroom, but having the teacher monitor by moving about the room is much more effective. “Software is never going to replace the interaction a human being has with a student,” he said.
“The sad part is that kids are coming from the middle school having had the resource,” Hobin said. “So now we have kids who have had full access during the school day, coming to the high school and saying, ‘Where’s my Chromebook?’”
According to Sujka, 104 laptops have been purchased through the $35,000 donation and an additional 121 will be purchased before the next school year.
Hobin said there are 400 additional laptops scattered around the high school, in various buildings. About 200 of them are new enough for automatic upgrades.
“We can distribute the ones we have to our upperclassmen,” Hobin said, but some students still will not have access to them on a regular basis.
Sujka said that the administration would have to budget for computer replacement through a capital replacement plan.
“We’re going to have to invest in replacing this equipment,” Sujka said. There are over 1,600 devices in the school, he said, including printers, copiers, projectors, computers and other devices.