Money for tech projects is still out there.
With potentially devastating budget cuts and massive teacher layoffs looming, many school districts must pare down or shelve technology projects outright.
Despite the dismal short-term economic outlook, numerous schools and districts can still get their tech projects funded through savvy lobbying of elected officials, by embarking on novel partnerships with the business community and applying for grants from federal and state governments, private foundations and corporations. President Bush’s proposed fiscal 2004 budget slashes $62.5 million in programs for training teachers to use technology, for example. Yet the proposed budget leaves $700.5 million intact in the form of grants that states can use to fund school technology.
Lobbying State Government and the School Board
Tackett says it’s important to educate everyone—the community, school boards and elected officials—that technology is key to children’s education. He’s had tech projects funded for his school for four years straight by meeting with elected state officials. In New Mexico, state senators and representatives receive a lump sum they can give to constituents and organizations within their region, he says.
“I called our local senator and representative from our area and had lunch,” Tackett recalls. “I started discussions on what our needs were, the school’s success stories in the past. People don’t want to be part of a sinking ship. You have to have a program and purpose to present to your funding sources.”
Lobbying worked. Tackett’s piece of the funding pie increased each year over the last four years. He started with $25,000, which doubled to $50,000. He received $74,000 in 2001 and $194,000 last year. The last grant was used to build a computer lab with 32 new computers. The remainder of last year’s funds will be used to purchase new software to enhance student reading, writing and math skills. Overall, he amassed 120 computers for his school’s 450 students—and each computer has high-speed Internet access.
Tackett believes raising funds for technology, and acting as a sales rep to the community, is just a part of his job. “We have to be instructional leaders, but we also need an awareness of the public relations and fund-raising responsibilities—they go hand in hand,” he says. “Technology is crucial. If you are going to go anywhere in the job market, you need basic technology skills, even to operate the cash register.”
Robin Smith, educational technology specialist at Pennsylvania’s Hollidaysburg Area School District, echoes similar sentiments. Because her school district doesn’t have enough poor students to qualify for most grants, Smith relies heavily on the school board for her budget to pay for new computers, wireless keyboards to teach typing and other technologies her district needs. This school year, she received $681,000, about $70,000 less than previous years because of budget cuts. Still, the funding shows the school board supports her efforts.
“It helps when you have an open-minded board and a supportive superintendent,” Smith says. “You also have to get parents involved. All it takes is making a comment on how technology is making a difference in the classroom and how much their child learned.”
Mike Casey, educational technology project manager at the San Diego Unified School District/San Diego City Schools (SDCS) recently convinced district’s cash-strapped schools to spend $30 million on a complete technology overhaul—but he did so with the promise that the project will save the school money in the long run.
With more than 140,000 students in nearly 200 schools, SDCS is the second largest in California—but its technology infrastructure is still outdated. The district does nearly everything with paper. Teachers take attendance by hand. Employees write out time cards. Administrators take these sheets to a central location where a large staff processes them. Even hiring a teacher could take months before the documents wind their way through the human resources and finance departments.
Under the superintendent’s direction, Casey spent about a year and a half planning and selling the idea to reengineer these administrative processes with technology. Last November, the SDCS’ Board of Education embraced the concept and approved the project, mostly with money from voter-approved school bonds that could only be used for capital improvement projects. The resulting implementation will automate numerous processes, saving an estimated $8 million in three years—crucial savings with budget cuts on the horizon.
“We won’t need as many people pushing paper anymore,” Casey says. “We can automate that and apply the monetary savings to hiring more teachers and getting additional education materials.”
Casey says he did two important things to get the project going. First, he hired a planner with experience implementing school computer systems. Then Casey brought on a consultant to review and evaluate proposals from software vendors. The school district chose enterprise resource planning system software from PeopleSoft and a student information system from Zangle. A district Web portal will integrate both systems.
In the future, teachers can take attendance with a computer—giving administrators a quicker, more accurate assessment of the average daily attendance, which is how the state decides on funding, Casey says. To meet new government requirements, the new technology will better track students’ academic progress, such as whether sophomores are on course to meet college entry requirements.
Data integration will also let principals quickly check teacher availability when they make class schedules, and get those positions funded, Casey adds. The current system forces principals to contact human resources for teacher availability, then another department to check teacher credentials, and finally the finance department to fund the positions.
The two-year project includes training for school employees, a new e-mail system and improvements to the district’s network. An additional three years of the project—totaling about $20 million of mostly maintenance costs—will be funded by cost savings from the new technology and possibly from grants.
Casey says SDCS was fortunate that money for the project was available from past school bonds approved by voters when the California economy was still strong. He believes every school district has similar funding opportunities for technology.
“All school districts have similar types of capital improvement projects,” he says. “It’s a matter of setting up priorities. There are definitely trade-offs. We’re not taking dollars from hiring teachers, but we’re spending money that could have built a new school. It’s having commitments from the school board and the superintendent that this is the No. 1 priority.”
Partnering With Businesses
It’s important to develop good relationships with the tech companies you hire because they’re often willing to give free consulting and technology, Casey says.
The San Diego school district is a long-time customer of network equipment maker Cisco Systems and telecommunications service provider SBC, and the two companies now donate time and hardware to the district, he says. Empower Solutions, the consulting firm hired to implement part of the project, recently provided Casey a free analysis of document imaging systems he is looking to buy. “That saved me a month of legwork,” he says.
Casey says he approaches companies before making a purchase. “We haven’t written it in the contract language, but we definitely talk about what they can give back to the school district,” he says. “They have talents we don’t have, and they see real value in helping education.”
Robin Smith says a Pennsylvania startup called Schoolwires® recently offered to build the Hollidaysburg school district a free Web portal and free Web design training if school administrators agreed to provide feedback and work with them to develop improvements.
“The district has a page, and each [school] has a page, and we are working down to the individual teacher,” she says. “Both sides give and get a great deal in return.”
With the Web site launch, Smith purchased technology that allows parents to view their children’s latest grades on the Web.
School districts can’t fund everything. As such, many schools turn to grants.
Connie Hendrix, curriculum and technology integration specialist at San Francisco’s John O’Connell High School learned to write grants by taking classes and reading grant proposals written by others. She recently received a $10,000 Title V grant from the federal government to buy new classroom projectors. She warns that grant-writing is an arduous and time-consuming task that might take up a lot of weekends.
“My feeling is that teachers shouldn’t have to go out and scrounge for the money,” Hendrix says. “You spend a lot of valuable time going through the process. But the only way we can get what we need is writing grants.”
While grant-writing is not easy, it’s not impossible, either. To find available grants, Smith, who received a $187,500 grant from the Pennsylvania Department of Education two years ago, suggests asking your principal or school superintendent. The National Education Association and federal and state departments of education have grant information as well, she says.
It’s crucial to gain the support of your superintendent or principal, Smith advises. “The last thing you want is to get a grant and then have to give the money back because your administration doesn’t want to do what you proposed,” she says.
The proposal must explain what the money will do for students, she says. “The hardware you are purchasing should not be the focus, but simply equipment that is needed to get the job done.”
Smith, whose grant paid for computers and teacher training, says perseverance is key in grant-writing. Expect to spend two to three hours per page, with the average grant taking about 40 hours of work. Some grants are one page long, while others could be as long as 138 pages.
“Don’t give up if you get rejected,” Hendrix says. “Think of it as a learning process. If it’s rejected and another grant becomes available, make modifications and resubmit to another place.” .
More Tips on Grant Writing
Robin Smith, a grant writer and educational technology specialist at Pennsylvania’s Hollidaysburg Area School District, gives the following advice on grant writing:
1. Know in advance the type of projects the grantor is interested in and how many they plan to fund.
2. Include a hook—something that will make your grant different.
3. Make sure you answer all questions and comply with all grant guidelines.
4. Make sure you have a clear plan. Write in plain English. Do not use jargon or abbreviations.
5. Back statements up with facts and statistics. Just saying “my students have reading problems” isn’t enough. You need to say: “48 percent of the students in my class scored below the average percentile for reading.”
6. Make realistic goals and check to ensure your timeline matches the grantor’s funding cycle.
7. Include the necessary staff training costs to make the project successful.
8. If you are awarded a grant, remember someone is responsible for implementing the project. Make sure money is spent appropriately, and forms are submitted on time.