New school technology hits bumps

HANCOCK COUNTY — As local schools near the end of the first quarter of the school year, officials from two local districts say a new technology effort has hit just a handful of bumps.

More than 5,000 local students at Mt. Vernon schools and Greenfield-Central High School received laptops at the beginning of the school year to enhance learning. While much has gone smoothly with the roll out of the take-home computer program, the shift has left a few gaps to be bridged, administrators say.

Mt. Vernon School Corp. made an all-in leap with its digital initiative this year, deciding in June to move up the timeline on its proposed program by handing out devices to each of the district’s roughly 3,700 students at the beginning of the school year — a full year earlier than initially planned. By doing so, the district joined Southern Hancock School Corp. as the only local school system to have devices for students in all grade levels.

Greenfield-Central School Corp. is taking an incremental approach to its program and began this fall by handing out MacBook Air laptops to each of the district’s high school students —about 1,500 in all.

Officials from both districts say they’ve addressed a handful of issues as they arose with the programs during the first few weeks of school, and they continue to look for ways to make sure students and teachers are utilizing the costly devices.

The biggest obstacle Greenfield-Central administrators have faced is finding an insurance company to offer coverage for the computers, which cost about $800, said Greg Thompson, technology director for Greenfield-Central.

The district initially believed families would be able to add a policy onto existing insurance plans, but many were turned away from company representatives, who said they couldn’t insure the devices because the district technically owns them, Thompson said.

Now, the district has found a company willing to insure the devices, but students who choose to take out the policy will have to bring their devices to the technology department beforehand for an inspection to ensure there’s no current damage, he said.

The same company is insuring Mt. Vernon devices.

John Rihm, a science teacher at Greenfield-Central High School, said while he’s comfortable with the computers, as are the students in his classes, he’s noticed a handful of teachers who are having trouble.

“There are a number of teachers still finding their way on how to use the computer and its programs,” Rihm said.

Now that all of his students have a device to bring home, though, the transition has streamlined coursework, Rihm said.

Before the new program, he could only ask his students to perform certain tasks on computers at the school, he said. But now that all students have certain programs pre-loaded onto their laptops, he can have his students do work at home that he couldn’t ask for previously.

And although the school has an “open/closed policy,” in which teachers place a sign on their chalkboards when they expect students to have their laptop screens up or down, it’s not always easy to enforce, Rihm said.

“Our enrollments are high enough that you just can’t see all the laptops at a time,” he said. “That can be distracting.”

Shane Robbins, Mt. Vernon superintendent, said he’s encouraging teachers to use the new technology as much as they’re comfortable with it.

“We see it as a tool for our teachers, and we’re leaving it to them to decide where it best fits in their classrooms,” Robbins said. “What may be an appropriate level of usage in an English classroom may not be the same in the science department.”

Some teachers have been hesitant, Robbins said, and he acknowledges the learning curve will be steeper for some than others. To ease that transition, the district is offering several opportunities for teachers to receive technology training, he said.

Some parents also were hesitant about the program before it launched.

Renita Elliott, who has a third-grader and sixth-grader enrolled in Mt. Vernon schools, said she was skeptical of the new program when she first heard of it months ago.

But since her children received their devices at the beginning of the school year, her concerns have dissolved, she said.

“They’ve both been really happy with it, and I’d rather they carry around (the computers) instead of having so many papers and books,” Elliott said. “Now they have access to everything at their fingertips.

And while Robbins said the district’s students have kept up with the roll out of the new program, some buildings needed infrastructure improvements added after the start of the year to keep up with Internet traffic. The improvements have been made, and students are able to connect throughout the schools’ buildings, he said.

Daniel Morgan is a reporter at the Greenfield Daily Reporter. He can be reached at (317) 477-3228 or