The Niagara Falls City School District’s Carmen Granto and Larry Martinez are leading a technology revolution that promises to transform a city of 50,000 people that is best known as a honeymoon destination into a world-class interactive community.
Granto, the district’s superintendent, and Martinez, its administrator for educational technology, are largely responsible for a vision that will bring connectivity into every parent’s home, senior citizen center, and local agency in Niagara Falls within the next few years.
Parents will be able to check their children’s grades through their cable TV set-top boxes. They’ll be able to take classes in PowerPoint or Excel from their own homes. And they’ll be able to use the resources in the new high school’s high-tech media center 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
Remarkably, the district plans to carry out its vision without leveraging a single penny from its local tax base.
Judging from its record so far, it’s likely the district will succeed. Niagara Falls City School District is already in its sixth year of being wired. It completed the objectives of its first technology plan, a five-year plan developed with help from IBM, in just three years. Since 1991, the 9,000-student district has made more than $23 million in technology improvements without raising any local taxes, Martinez said.
Part of the district’s success can be traced to its intelligent use of state technology funds. For every dollar it spends on targeted technology initiatives, Niagara Falls gets back 80 percent the following year through its Board of Cooperative Educational Services (BOCES).
But much of its success also stems from the creative partnerships the district has formed with private businesses. As Granto explained, Niagara Falls looks for unique ways to partner with technology companies, using the privatization model that has worked so well for the business community.
“We feel our specialty is teaching,” he said. “That’s what we do best. In turn, we let the technology experts do what they do best.”
In its business partnerships, the district looks for creative ways to structure contracts to eliminate much of the up-front costs of technology. For example, Niagara Falls leases four computers per classroom, plus a laptop for every teacher. The district owns none of its hardware or software.
“This is just like paying the light bill,” Granto said, referring to the fact that the district pays a regular monthly fee for equipment use. “And every three years, everything gets turned over”–so the equipment is never obsolete and always is covered by warranty.
Another example is the district’s partnership with Honeywell Inc., an international company that develops and supplies advanced technology products and services designed to conserve energy, protect the environment, and improve comfort, safety, and productivity.
Honeywell has replaced the lighting and heating systems, soundproofed the hallways, and installed wiring in several of the district’s buildings–at no up-front cost to the district.
Both parties anticipated that the savings the district would eventually realize would exceed the project’s costs, Martinez said. So the district agreed to pay Honeywell a percentage of the money it saved on energy bills each month, thereby spreading the cost of the improvements over time.
The culmination of the district’s partnership with Honeywell–and of its reliance on the privatization model–can be seen in its new high school, set to open in the fall of 2000. According to Martinez, the school will be the first U.S. public school to be privately owned (by Honeywell, which also built the facility), leased by the district (for 30 years), and built on land leased to the city by a state power authority.
Since the cost of the state-of-the-art facility will be spread across the lease period, local officials didn’t have to raise taxes to pay for it, Martinez said. The district also will save money on the building’s maintenance, which Honeywell will supply. As an added term of the lease, Honeywell agreed to place technology innovations in the school as they come out–at cost.
A well-connected community
The new high school exemplifies the district’s vision of how technology can be used to transform education and create a well-connected, 21st-century community.
Information kiosks in the lobbies, complete with multimedia presentations, will showcase the learning taking place inside the school for parents and visitors. The school’s high-tech media center will be open for use by the community–“like a Kinko’s,” Martinez said. Multimedia amphitheaters will be wired so up to 250 audience members can plug in laptops and follow a presentation online. School administrators will use “smart cards” to track students’ lunch accounts, library privileges, and security.
The building’s architecture has been designed so that opening it to the community won’t interfere with the activities taking place in the classrooms, Martinez said. But including the community goes well beyond opening the doors to the physical structure; for Niagara Falls, it means becoming a node for city members’ internet access as well.
Through its partnership with a local cable franchise, the district has secured free internet hookups for parents of the district’s students and the local agencies that service them. “More parents have cable than have phones in our city,” Martinez said. “So the best way to reach them is through cable.”
Each of the district’s 15 schools can transmit two-way voice, video, and data over a fiber-optic backbone, Granto said. The district’s goal is to use this infrastructure to share resources and information–everything from students’ grades to technology training–with stakeholders.
“We want parents to be able to actually peek into the classroom live when video-streaming becomes widely available,” Martinez said. “We’ve got second-graders doing multimedia presentations on PowerPoint–this is hard for parents to deal with. We want to offer training to the parents as well as teachers and students, so they can understand the type of learning their children are experiencing.”
Creating an interconnected community not only helps parents support the district’s technology initiatives, Martinez said; it also prepares the district for what it sees as an educational reality within the next few decades.
“We believe the future bodes for 20 percent of a school’s population to be learning outside the school building at any given time,” Martinez said. “The best thing we can do to prepare for this reality is to establish internet connections all over the city.”
Curriculum and staff development
Brick-and-mortar technology improvements are extremely important, Martinez said–but the infusion of technology doesn’t end there. “If we put all this in and then use it the same way, we’re going to get the same results,” he said. “If we do that, we’ll have missed the boat.”
Finding new ways to incorporate technology through real-world applications in the classroom–such as using electronic keyboards to create and mix sound in music classes–is just as important as infrastructure, Martinez said.
Niagara Falls teachers have a huge say in the new methods, he added: A teacher “quality council” offers input to ensure that teachers are fully on board the district’s technology plan. And teachers receive on-demand staff training in new methods and technologies through satellite-broadcast video feeds, whenever–and wherever–they desire (see story, page 20).
Niagara Falls City School District