Installation of elementary school wireless laptops nearly completed

Installation of elementary school wireless laptops nearly completed

SMITHFIELD - Plans are moving forward to expand broadband access in town schools and begin using newly purchased laptops in the elementary grades, Technology Director Paul Barrett said in an update to the School Committee at Monday's March 17 meeting.

Barrette's comments came during discussion of the performance audit released in November, an independent look at the school system by a Providence consultant firm that generally gave the district high marks. In the field of technology, the audit recommended broadband at the elementary level and replacement of old units with four to six brand new computers per classroom.

Two vendors are now competing to expand broadband access across the district, Barrette said, and meanwhile, work to render schools wireless has begun with Envision Technology, Pawtucket, under a $214,000 state-funded contract approved in February. The wireless project, Barrette said, should be completed in the next few months in two schools.

Attention is going to the lower grades first. The Town Council previously had set aside funds for the purchase of 240 laptop computers earmarked for use by elementary grades, Barette said, and district technicians now have the computers ready for use sometime this spring. He noted that he has been asked to address the faculty about care and use of the laptops in the near future. Work to expand computer options at the middle and high schools will follow soon after.

"Exciting things are happening here, in pockets," Barrette said. "We're ready for this," he added, referring to ramping up the district's computer capabilities. The laptops are "brand new computers with the latest software," he said." We know everyone has different technology at home, so we're choosing tools that will work for all kids and all platforms."

Funds have been made available for Barrette's technology work in the 2014-15 budget that takes effect July 1, particularly a $280,000 line item for capital technology work. Funds have been recommended to upgrade network cabling at two elementary schools, $20,000 to $30,000, and to upgrade network switches and uninterruptible power supplies, from $60,000 to $90,000.

In other matters, the School Committee:

* Learned from Supt. Robert M. O'Brien that Smithfield High School has the lowest number of Advanced Placement courses in the state and the state has the lowest number in the nation, which means "Smithfield has the lowest number of AP courses in the country," he said. The district has five and the state average is eight.

O'Brien's comment came as he presented the latest New England Common Assessment Program scores to the committee. In nearly all grades, particularly from grade 3 through grade 8, the number of Smithfield students scoring "proficient" and "proficient with distinction" - the two highest rankings - ranged from 52 percent to a whopping 92 percent of the October test-takers, with most in the 70 percent to 80 percent range. That is proof, O'Brien said, that Smithfield has "the students who would benefit from AP courses." Next year's budget includes funding, $41,245, for a sixth AP course, in biology. He and the committee have indicated that they would like to add an AP course each year for the next few years.

* Approved by unanimous voice vote a resolution urging the General Assembly to defeat a measure, introduced by state Reps. Thomas Winfield, a Democrat from Smithfield, and Gregory J. Costantino, a Democrat representing Lincoln, Smithfield and Johnston, that would authorize the town to take over care and maintenance of "the outside grounds and fields" of the school district, under direction of the town manager.

The School Committee's petition opposed says, among other things: the act may be unconstitutional; no provision is offered for approval by voters; the act limits the School Committee's ability to control its own budget; the Town Council has not endorsed it; and, the idea may not be the most cost-effective.

And, in an amendment to the opposition petition from Committeeman Brenden T. Oates, if the legislature continues to advance the proposal, it would only become effective after a joint resolution is passed in favor of it by both the School Committee and the Town Council "together." The petition notes that the two boards currently are exploring the idea of sharing services and, when both parties agree, "they will enact appropriate plans without the necessity of such legislation."

* Approved obtaining bids for architectural and engineering services for preparation of a five-year health and safety plan for school buildings, in accord with new state Department of Education regulations governing the use of state housing aid for capital improvements.

The local district actually needs new roofs on the administration building, the middle school and the high school - at an estimated cost of about $5.7 million total - but must now have professionals prepare a comprehensive plan to obtain the state funds through a bond referendum voters would be asked to approve at the November election.

The reason why a professional architect and an engineer must conduct the building survey, O'Brien explained, is to assure RIDE that the roofs are the most pressing health and safety capital need in the district. "They will go through every building and make sure nothing is more critical than the roofs," O'Brien said, noting the administration building does not qualify for state housing aid so other funding must be used for it.