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Funding a 1-to-1 Laptop

Initiative  

 

BY MATT AKIN

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As the superintendent of a 1,200-student school district in the early stages of a laptop initiative, I can say the No. 1 concern I hear from school and district administrators about starting their own laptop program centers on funding.

First, you need to realize the implementation of a 1-to-1 laptop initiative requires financial investments beyond the cost of computers. You must have a high-speed wireless network, learning management software and 21st-century classroom equipment. We installed whiteboards, mounted projectors, wireless sound systems and document cameras. Ongoing costs include laptop repair, network maintenance and home Internet access.

Before tackling the funding, consider the instructional issues. You must begin with a belief in the potential of every child having a computer and be willing to share that vision with the entire community. The latter point is the key. With buy-in to a vision of what’s possible, the question of funding becomes much easier.

These are the three main considerations for underwriting the costs of a new 1-to-1 laptop program.

Examine the existing school system budget for areas of flexibility. My first thought when considering a 1-to-1 initiative in Piedmont, Ala., was, “How can we afford it?” My chief financial officer and I analyzed the cost of laptops, and we calculated the percentage of the cost of laptops of the overall budget. We were amazed the percentage was less than 3 percent. I used that small percentage to persuade our school board and other stakeholders that the initiative was entirely affordable.

We negotiated a four-year, low-interest lease agreement on the laptop purchase. The laptops cost our school system about $1 per day per student.

Consider all costs. Don’t set a financial trap for yourself. Consider all ancillary costs associated with implementation. We equipped all of our classrooms with projectors; mobile, interactive whiteboards; and document cameras a year before we began our laptop initiative. We also upgraded our network to add fast, wireless capability. These costs equaled the amount of funds we spent on laptops.

When the laptops were deployed, we decided to purchase backpacks for all students (rather than requiring students to purchase their own). The backpacks cost the district $40,000. Such expenses add up quickly. Our laptops included the appropriate instructional software, so those costs were covered in the initial purchase. We also worked with the state agency that provides our Internet access to provide filtering software at no charge.

We purchased an extended warranty on all laptops, so the cost of repair is minimal. Students also pay a $50-per-year usage fee, which is adjusted downward based on family income. As long as students are following our required use policy, this fee covers the cost of any damages.

We adjusted the schedules of existing staff members (teachers and instructional aides) to provide help-desk support at each of our three schools. This year, we began partnering with our local university to use college students who are on work-study to assist with repairs.

Consider other funding sources. We secured funds from various sources to fund our initiative. Although a pilot project was funded initially by a federal Enhancing Education Through Technology grant, most available grant funds aren’t for hardware.

Our 1-to-1 project, which began with laptop purchases in fall 2010, would not be possible without federal E-rate funds. These covered 80 percent of the costs of our network upgrade and annual network maintenance. More recently, our district received funding through a pilot E-rate program to provide home Internet access for our students. We’ve also tapped federal money through Title I and special education.

Although state support has been slashed over recent years, funds earmarked for at-risk students, textbooks and capital outlay are all potential sources to assist with financing a 1-to-1 laptop initiative.

We also contracted with a grant writer to seek outside support. While these sources usually don’t apply to computer purchases, most funders look favorably on districts that have made the initial hardware investment. We have received multiple grants that fund software, professional development and enrichment programs.

Community Buy-In
When you contemplate all of these issues about funding, I believe the most important consideration is the students in your school system. Building the case for placing a laptop in the hands of every student is the place to start.

We began these discussions with the school board, and they quickly expanded to community leaders and the city council. Our community readily bought in to the idea that technology is a necessary investment in our children with the potential to transform our entire city.

Now, about 18 months later, Piedmont, Ala., is undergoing a true transformation. Enrollment in the school system has increased over 10 percent. We have received a grant that ultimately will bring broadband wireless access to our entire community. Most importantly, our kids are being empowered to fulfill their dreams.

Matt Akin is superintendent of Piedmont City Schools in Piedmont, Ala. E-mail: makin@piedmont.k12.al.us

 

 

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