A Silver Lining For New Orleans Schools

A year after Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans schools still struggle to rebuild, but many also see an opportunity to provide students with leading-edge technology.

COLLEEN FIEGEL COULDN’T BELIEVE her eyes as she surveyed the water damage and destruction inside Benjamin Franklin High School in New Orleans several weeks after Hurricane Katrina ravaged the area in late August 2005.

The first floor of the 17-year-old school building had been under several feet of water, and the first signs of mold had crept in. Computer systems rotted upstairs from the heat and humidity. Water damage rendered the school’s TV studio useless, and sawdust and sheetrock covered one of the data servers.

“I remember looking at everything and thinking, ‘How in the world are we ever going to replace all of this?’” says Fiegel, the technology coordinator for the school.

With the strong leadership of Principal Carol Christen and the backing of dedicated parents, teachers and supporters, the school opened its doors on Jan. 17 — one of the first schools in New Orleans to reopen. Unfortunately, it had lost much of the technology it had before the Category IV storm struck.

But amid the destruction, Fiegel saw opportunity. “As time went on, I thought, ‘We can get better equipment, more equipment, and get teachers and students more involved — not just in learning the content but in learning the latest technology.’ For students to be prepared for jobs or college, they really need to be a step ahead.”

Fiegel and faculty members developed a technology wish list that included new desktop and notebook computers, interactive whiteboards, interactive projectors and media equipment. With the help of private and federal funds, their technology plan is becoming reality. The school opened for the 2006-2007 school year on Aug. 15, and new equipment still trickles in daily.

“No matter what we have or don’t have, we are here,” Fiegel says. “That’s most important.”

Other New Orleans schools have also found a silver lining in the devastation of Hurricane Katrina: an opportunity to rethink their technology plans and incorporate leading-edge technology to help students prepare for the world beyond the classroom.

READY FOR THE REAL WORLD

Repairing the technology infrastructure at Benjamin Franklin High would be more complicated than removing mold from walls and replacing the gymnasium floor.

Every piece of technology — from CAT 5 connectivity to video cameras in the TV studio to classroom computers — was damaged. In a school where technology had permeated nearly every part of the teaching environment, replacing and upgrading systems would be expensive and time-consuming.

“My building was totally wired,” Christen says. “I lost everything on the first floor, [including] a computer lab and a TV studio that broadcast to TVs in every classroom. We’re still struggling to restore that piece.”

Funding is clearly an issue. After Katrina, Christen pushed to reconstitute Franklin as a charter school with its own bylaws and budgets, because help was coming too slowly to New Orleans public schools. Charter schools receive government funding but control how it’s spent. Even with the federal dollars, the school has to rely on E-Rate funds, which Christen expects to receive this fall, to complete the technology upgrade.

What’s more, since the district owned the school property before Katrina, it had to apply for funds from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. “It’s so complicated and bureaucratic, it’s unbelievable,” she says. “It’s a learning curve I wouldn’t want anybody to go through.” The school will also use federal title money to complete the project.

The new plan had to involve both replacing old systems and planning for the future.

Before Katrina, residents donated old computers to the school, and the parent association raised funds to get other PCs. At that time, “We weren’t eligible for Title I moneys,” Fiegel recalls, “so that’s how we got one computer in every classroom and built on that.”

With the new funds, the school plans to establish model classrooms, with 12 desktop PCs, in each of seven educational departments “where we can enhance curriculum, student learning and achievement through the use of technology,” Christen says. The school also hopes to have interactive projectors and interactive whiteboards in the model classrooms, Fiegel adds.

The school also ordered 52 notebook PCs for staff members, which they didn’t have before Katrina, as well as flash drives for every student so kids can work together and see each other’s work. Most of the equipment will be in place by year’s end.

Fiegel notes that the school didn’t go on a technology shopping spree. “I don’t believe in wasting money,” she says. “I want quality rather than quantity, and what’s logistically feasible. We’ve got to make it easy for the teachers to use. If [new equipment] just sits in a closet, what good is it to anybody?”

Despite everything that’s been accomplished, there’s still more work to be done. The next wave of technology, scheduled for later this school year, will provide students with wireless connectivity for notebook PCs.

“It’s our job to show kids how to efficiently use their time to get what they need in terms of content and applicability and to prepare them for the skills they’ll need in the real world,” Christen says.

MOVING FROM THE DARK AGES

The New Orleans neighborhood of Algiers didn’t suffer devastating flooding, but the Algiers Charter Schools Association faced wind damage and looting. At one school, TVs and video cameras from a $100,000 videoconferencing system vanished.

Half of the 5- to 10-year-old computers that did survive the storm succumbed to debris and humidity, and were eventually scrapped because they required repeated repairs. On the bright side, the wide area network infrastructure survived and provided a gig pipe in and out of each school.

From a hardware perspective, “We needed to replace everything,” recalls Rich Valerga, director of IT for the eight-school association. It was a welcome renovation for a group of schools that were a decade behind in hardware and software.

Valerga started with the worst school, William J. Fischer Elementary, where most of the old computers were gone. A donation from Church World Service provided money for 100 new desktops and lab tables for the school.

Dahme Bolden, Fischer’s principal, is excited about the new technology. Before Katrina, the school didn’t have a computer lab, and the few available PCs were broken or outdated. This year, each classroom will have a minimum of three computers, and the school will have a computer lab that students will visit once or twice a week.

“The students will have hands-on experiences that will open doors for them in the world of technology, while raising student achievement,” Bolden says.

Later, Algiers Charter Schools Association received carryover title funds from the 2004-2005 school year that allowed Valerga to “start over” in five of the six schools that the association initially operated. He has asked the state to provide funds for 250 pilot interactive boards and two mobile labs for each of the six schools. Every mobile lab includes 24 notebook PCs, an access point and a printer on a cart, among other things. The association also purchased notebook PCs for most of the staff.

At Edna Karr Senior High School, Principal John Hiser looks forward to having at least one computer in every classroom, which the school did not have before Katrina.

Hiser is setting up a resource lab where master teachers will show faculty how to use the latest technology for research and how to integrate technology with lesson planning and instructional strategies. Karr also received a grant for robotics equipment. “I think that will spike quite a bit of interest in merging science and technology in the minds of the kids,” Hiser adds.

Valerga hopes to have all the Algiers Charter Schools’ gear in place by January, but it will take years longer to realize the technology’s full benefits. Training will be an important component.

“We have fantastic faculty, but they’re behind [technologically],” he says, explaining that some teachers don’t have even basic computer skills, while others are more advanced. “My biggest challenge in the next two years is training, and we have to start from the ground up.” Once the staff is comfortable with the basics, they can move on to more advanced technology.

While the road ahead may be long, Valerga says the outcome will be worth all the state and federal funding hoops that he has jumped through. “The district will have gone from the Dark Ages to the 21st century in six months,” he says. “When kids leave us, they’ll have a variety of skill sets that will help them in their college studies and in their careers.”

ONE STEP AT A TIME

Some New Orleans schools will take smaller strides into the 21st century.

The technology windfall came more quickly to some New Orleans schools than to others. Only 56 of the 128 public schools in New Orleans are opening their doors during August and September, according to the Recovery School District (RSD) of New Orleans, the state organization set up by the Louisiana Department of Education to help failing schools.

The state transferred 112 under-performing schools to the RSD, 107 of them after Katrina. The number of schools opening is based on demographic projections and the condition of each building.

Most of the open schools are charter schools that didn’t suffer as much damage as those in more devastated areas. For other schools, technology is part of a vast to-do list, along with remediating mold, clearing debris and constructing new walls. But technology remains one of their primary goals.

“We are building world-class schools one step at a time,” says Robert Logan, RSD’s chief operating officer. “Initially, we will establish a baseline consisting of three to four computers per classroom, two to four computer labs per school, mobile notebook PC carts for on-demand learning, faculty notebook PCs, wired and wireless connectivity, classroom-based projection and input devices, and assistive technology.”

RSD orders and pays for the equipment for RSD-run schools and RSD charter schools. To make its technology vision a reality, the organization receives funds from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, federal Hurricane Education Relief Act Restart funds, E-Rate, the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Community Development Block Grant program, and grants from ExxonMobil and General Electric.

Stacy Collett is a business and technology writer in Chicago.

Oct 31 2006

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