All 116,000 Polk County Public Schools students are getting their own electronic device, thanks to a $28 million grant from the federal government, along with other state funding, Superintendent Frederick Heid announced during a Thursday morning press conference.
“Our one-to-one initiative and digital learning initiative really supports our students and our teachers to take learning to the next level,” Heid said. “We’re calling it an ‘Always On’ learning experience because no longer are students really restricted to those classroom hours. What the device will allow them to do is, even when they leave campus, they’ll continue to have access to their content and the information that they need. So you can continue to explore.”
The move has been years in the making, with district officials applying for and receiving the grant last year as part of former Superintendent Jacqueline Byrd’s vision for the district. It is also a major part of Heid’s strategic plan.
Elementary school students will receive an iPad and a hardened case with keyboard, which Heid said will allow them to learn “21st century skills,” as well as keyboarding skills. Middle and high school students are getting a Dell or HP laptop.
While some schools have already gotten devices, other that have buildings that need a technology upgrade will be getting theirs throughout September and October.
In spring 2020, as the COVID-19 pandemic settled in, Byrd distributed electronic devices to all 105,000 students. Heid said these devices will either be in addition to the ones handed out in 2020 or will replace them.
“We’ve had a refurbishment/replacement process in Polk County for a number of years,” Heid said. “And so as the device ages out, it’s replaced. We’re not trying to replace the entirety of our inventory. In this case, because we’re doing a wholesale deployment, what we will do is we are actually budgeting every year in anticipation of having to replace those devices.”
The superintendent said the shelf life for iPads is three to five years and, for laptops, two to four years.
The devices will have controls embedded in them that stops students from going to any inappropriate websites, with a filtering system that meets or exceeds all state and federal requirements. Some sites that are blocked are social media sites.
“It also has a notification process and it does notify parents and it does notify us — that notification goes to different individuals — so should a student go online and search a topic that’s a school-safety related issue, that goes to our safe schools office and then they report it to law enforcement and to the school and we follow up immediately with the student,” Heid said. “That includes things such as if a student were to search about self-harm, or anything else related to mental health that goes through safe schools and those students get the supports that they need. If they search for another inappropriate term or are looking for images, then we get a notification and the school administration will address that on campus with the student and the family in a follow-up.”
Heid said a program they will be using includes a report sent to parents at the end of every month with a list of everything their child had searched on their device.
“That allows the parent to sit down with your child and say, ‘Why are you looking at these terms?’ and have a meaningful conversation with your child,” Heid said, adding that it was used in his previous school district in Illinois and helped him as a parent talk with his own son.
He compared the teaching capabilities to when he was in school, when a book would have an italicized word and he would look it up in the glossary in the back of the book. Now, a student can hover their mouse over the word and the definition will pop up, along with a video about it.
Students will even be able to electronically dissect frogs, go on field trips, and take virtual tours or museums or even the human body. All this will help teachers differentiate for students who are at different learning levels and who learn best in different ways – reading, hearing, writing, and/or doing.
“This is not just a PDF of the traditional textbook. It’s actually an interactive text that we now have for classrooms,” Heid said. “It might take them on an exploration. So in a science classroom, they might have embedded virtual tours and field trips that students can participate in … There’s so many great opportunities for our students in this environment.”
That also can help English Language Learners and students with Individual Education Plans.
“I think it makes it’s an equalizer for our students, because they can flip back and forth between different languages. So even if your ELL student — think about that — they have access to something within their native language, they can go back and forth and reinforce learning English skills, as well,” Heid said. “But also for students with learning disabilities, historically, we have always provided students who require, with a (varying) exceptionality, who require assistive technology, this allows us to do that thing.
Students will be able to expand font size if they have a visual issue or hear the lesson in real time.
“And it allows us to create this repository of resources and supplements for our students and housing in one location in a very safe environment,” he said.
Of course, student use of laptop or iPads can also involve damage to the devices. Heid said the district is exploring insurance options for parents to buy. Repair fees will be based on each device and will vary by level of damage and repairs needed. Replacement fees for laptops are $674.50 and for iPads $349. Students will receive extensive lessons on how to use and care for their devices.
Polk County is the seventh-largest school district in the state and in the top 30 in the country. Other school district, like Los Angeles, have already gone one-to-one with devices and Heid said they have leaned on those districts to learn what worked and what did not for teachers and students.
Another part of the initiative is providing WiFi hotspots via PCPS buses parked in dead areas of the county. Heid said they currently have six to eight buses for that purpose and will be able to add more with the grant money. Areas like Frostproof, Fort Meade and Wahneta are known to have dead zones.
For students who can’t even get connected that way, an application will be available for the district to pay for internet connection in their home, but it will still have the school district safeguards to protect children.
“There’s a real ability for us to close or eliminate that digital divide between the haves and the have nots and it’s no longer dependent on your circumstances, your poverty level, or socioeconomic status, or the location across Polk County,” Heid said. “We can use some of this to pay for hard-wired services, as well — the grant does allow for that. We’re excited for that.”
Kimberly C. Moore is an award-winning reporter and a Lakeland native. She can be reached at [email protected] or 863-272-9250.