Fla. district to run checks on visitors to its school buildings

The St. Petersburg Times reports that the Hernando County School Board will purchase 23 web-based V.Soft data readers to place at the entrances to its schools. School visitors will be required to scan a driver’s license or photo ID upon entering the building. The software will then check a national database to see if any of these visitors are known sex offenders. The system can also be set up to identify people with restraining orders against them or parents forbidden by the courts from having contact with their children.

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Tech deals can sink school execs

The top technology administrator of the Dallas Independent School District (DISD) has been placed on paid administrative leave pending the outcome of an investigation into whether he broke any rules with his frequent use of a luxury fishing vessel owned by a company holding hundreds of millions of dollars in eRate contracts with the district.

Ruben Bohuchot, DISD’s associate superintendent for technology services, could be the latest example of what has become a disturbing recent trend: high-profile school leaders coming under fire for alleged violations involving ed-tech deals.

Bohuchot acknowledges taking free cruises on a 59-foot vessel owned by executives of Houston-based Micro System Enterprises every five or six weeks. According to the Dallas Morning News, Micro System has been listed as the recipient of more than 96 percent of the $369 million in eRate funding the district has applied for since 2003, though district officials say the company is the lead partner in a consortium of vendors who split the funding.

Bohuchot told the Dallas newspaper these boat trips did not influence the district’s bidding process, even though he wrote the specifications for jobs and negotiated the final terms after contracts were awarded. Micro System President Frankie Wong is a friend of his, Bohuchot said, adding that vendors on all DISD computer contracts worth more than $50,000 are chosen by a committee over which he has no influence.

District policies bar employees from accepting gifts or favors from vendors other than novelties such as key chains or coffee mugs. To rent a boat comparable to the Micro System yacht typically costs more than $1,800 per day, according to the Dallas newspaper.

Wong and two executives from companies with close ties to Micro System also have given thousands of dollars in campaign contributions to a city school board member, the Dallas Morning News reported. Dallas school trustee Ron Price reportedly received $25,000 in political donations from Wong, Larry Lehman of Giddings, Texas, and Frank Trifilio of Houston. Lehman and Trifilio work for Acclaim Professional Services, one of the consortium’s other members.

Price says he consulted a lawyer and the Texas Ethics Commission before accepting these donations. He says he was told that as long as the donations were from individuals and not companies, he could take them.

The three executives also have given more than $15,000 in campaign contributions to four Houston board members, according to the Houston Chronicle. Since 2003, their firms have received a collective $43 million for services delivered to that city’s school system, the Chronicle reported.

A disturbing trend

With its suspension of Bohuchot, Dallas joins a growing list of U.S. school districts dealing with allegations of questionable technology purchases, many of which involve third-party contractors accused of using bribes to curry favor with school administrators.

Former Prince George’s County, Md., schools chief Andre Hornsby found himself in similar straits earlier this year. Hornsby left the school system amid allegations that a $1 million deal inked between the district and Emeryville, Calif.-based LeapFrog SchoolHouse was aided by a personal relationship he had with one of the company’s sales representatives.

Hornsby, who is under investigation by the FBI for his dealings with the company, also was accused of running an eRate consulting business that conflicted with his interests as the school system’s top administrator and of accepting gifts, including a 10-day, all-expenses-paid trip to South Africa that he took while serving as president of the National Alliance of Black School Educators.

At press time, Hornsby’s dealings with education vendors remained under federal and state investigation.

And just yesterday, a story in the Inland Valley Daily Bulletin of Ontario, Calif., called into question the Pomona Unified School District’s purchase of 460 high-end Apple laptops for teachers in 2002. The laptops were purchased illicitly at inflated prices from a local reseller with ties to the district’s technology director, the newspaper alleged.

Pomona reportedly used more than $2.4 million in federal eRate funds to purchase the machines from Spectrum Communications Cabling Services of Corona, Calif. Never mind that computers for classroom use are ineligible for support under current eRate rules; educators are quoted by the Bulletin as saying that the machines showed up as blank slates, with no software–missing even operating systems.

Garey High School technology resource teacher Cindy Munafo, a 25-year district veteran, told the California newspaper that she opened up her Apple PowerBook G4 to find “nothing more than a glorified DVD player.” Munafo said she was forced to write a grant to secure the $20,000 in additional software needed to upgrade Garey’s laptops with enough applications so fellow teachers could perform basic document creation and other administrative tasks with the machines.

When asked about the purchase, district technology director David Jaramillo told the newspaper the stripped-down laptops were purchased as “classroom servers” and not as instructional tools.

But Munafo said that wasn’t the case. “As soon as they introduced those laptop servers to us, I knew it was a big joke,” she told the Bulletin. “They gave them to us with no software on them whatsoever.”

An investigation by the Bulletin reportedly found that Spectrum Communications charged the district well above retail price for the equipment: $3,573 for each laptop, or nearly $600 more than Apple’s retail price of $2,999. With an additional service plan and a $600 installation fee, the total cost was somewhere in the neighborhood of $5,000 per machine–more than twice what other districts across the country have paid for similar-sized deployments.

Digging deeper, the newspaper later learned that David Jaramillo’s brother, Joseph Jaramillo, is the director of research and education at a Spectrum subsidiary, according to a published account. The investigation, reported by Kenneth Todd Ruiz, also found the same subsidiary counted a former Pomona assistant superintendent as its chief operating officer.

Avoid conflicts of interest

Educators can take steps to keep questionable dealings from overshadowing the good work their schools do, said Tom Hutton, a staff attorney for the National School Boards Association.

Because individual school systems likely set their own policies regarding procurement and competitive-bidding procedures, Hutton said, administrators and school board members who have doubts about any pending ed-tech deal should seek advice from their district’s ethics board or legal counsel.

Links:

Dallas Independent School District
http://www.dallasisd.org

Micro System Enterprises Inc.
http://www.mseng.com

Acclaim Professional Services
http://www.acclaimps.com
(Note: the web site for Acclaim Professional Services was “under construction” at press time.)

Houston Independent School District
http://www.hisd.org

Prince George’s County Public Schools
http://www.pgcps.pg.k12.md.us

LeapFrog SchoolHouse
http://www.leapfrogschoolhouse.com

Pomona Unified School District
http://www.pomona.k12.ca.us

Spectrum Communications Cabling Services Inc.
http://www.spectrumccsi.com

National School Boards Association
http://www.nsba.org

Dallas Morning News
http://www.dallasnews.com/

Houston Chronicle
http://www.chron.com/

Inland Valley Daily Bulletin
http://www.dailybulletin.com/

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Wireless LANs prove a natural fit for the educational space

eChannelLine USA reports that research firm Datamonitor projects major growth in the number of schools using wireless LANs over the next three years. A Datamonitor representative says “universities are certain to deploy the technology in a bid to attract the best students, while schools are likely to implement the technology in classrooms to improve the learning experience.”

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UW scientists explore the oceans without leaving own campus

The Seattle Times reports on how technology has created new research opportunities for oceanographers at the University of Washington. UW scientists are now able to monitor the seas from the comfort of their own campus, thanks to two robotic vessels that roam the ocean floor and beam back live video. Back at the UW command center, researchers direct the robots through radio communications with a small team of colleagues on site. This allows more scientists to participate in a project, since they no longer all need to fit on one boat to conduct experiments.

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Content-filter woes embarrass Georgia elementary school

The Jasper News of Jasper, Ga., reports that the local school district is hearing vocal complaints from at least one enraged parent after her young son managed to view sexually explicit images on an elementary school school computer. While the district’s content filters had been working in all other buildings, the elementary school’s filter had failed, enabling students to access pornographic web sites after their teacher left a classroom computer connected to the internet.

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Teen web use nearly ubiquitous

Educators who have yet to do so might have to re-evaluate their current instructional strategies in light of a new survey compiled for the Pew Internet & American Life Project; it indicates internet use is nearly ubiquitous for today’s teens. Of those youngsters surveyed, 87 percent said they use the internet.

  • About half of the young people who have online access say they go on the internet every day, up from 42 percent in 2000.

  • Three-quarters of wired teens use instant messaging (IM), compared with 42 percent of online adults who do so. Teens most often reserve IM for friends. They use eMail for adults, including parents and teachers, the study found.

The survey’s results have broad implications for educators, who must re-evaluate their pedagogy to ensure it is relevant for a new generation of students with different expectations for how they will learn and communicate.

While nearly nine out of 10 young people, ages 12 through 17, have online access–up from about three-quarters of young people in 2000–only about 66 percent of American adults currently use the internet.

David Pulliam, a 17-year-old high school senior from Indianapolis, is a typical example of today’s connected teen.

He first got access to the internet when he was 13, as did most of those who were surveyed. He has a blog and loves to use instant messaging to stay in touch with friends he’s met at camps and sporting events. He also gets his news online, as do about three-quarters of the teen internet users who were surveyed. That’s an increase of about 38 percent, compared with 2000 results.

“It’s hard to imagine my life without it,” Pulliam says of the web. “In some ways, life would become a little easier because it would slow down. But it would become a lot more boring and hard, because you would always be waiting for letters and responses.”

At the same time, he says he and his friends also have honed their internet use–seeing it more as a tool for communication or research than “a novelty.”

Amanda Lenhart, a Pew researcher, says that tracks with the findings of the survey. “Teens are very selective–they’re smart about their technology use,” she says. “They use it for the kinds of things they need to do.”

As one teen in a focus group told her: “If you’re asking for your parents to extend your curfew, you don’t send an eMail.”

The survey, completed in late 2004, included responses from 1,100 young people who were contacted randomly by phone. It has a margin of error of four percentage points.

Here are some additional findings:

  • About half of families with teens who have an internet connection have speedier broadband access, while the other half still use phone lines to connect.

  • Nearly a third of teens who use IM have used it to send a music or video file.

  • Although 45 percent of those surveyed have cell phones, those phones aren’t necessarily the preferred mode of communication. Given a choice, about half of online teens still use land lines to call friends, while about a quarter prefer IM, and 12 percent say they’d rather call a friend on a cell phone.

  • Older teen girls who were surveyed, ages 15 to 17, are among the most intense users of the internet and cell phones, including text messaging.

“It debunks the myth of the tech-savvy boy,” Lenhart says. As young people get internet access at younger ages, that trend may only continue.

Back in Indianapolis, for instance, Pulliam’s 13-year-old sister, Anna, says she first set up an eMail account at age 8 and started using it regularly at age 10. She’s been IMing since she was 11 and already has a blog. She also uploads photos from her digital camera to a web site to share with friends.

She does not have a cell phone yet, though she notes that many people her age do.

That leads technology trackers to predict that text messaging, done by about a third of those surveyed who have cell phones, will grow in popularity.

“The more other kids are doing it, the more kids want to do it,” says Susannah Stern, an assistant professor of communications studies at the University of San Diego.

Still, as wired as many young people are, she says the fact that about 3 million of them remain without internet access is cause for concern. Many of those young people are financially disadvantaged, and a disproportionate number are black, the survey found.

“When so many teenagers have such access, the few that don’t are at a significant disadvantage,” Stern says.

Daniel Bassill, who heads an organization that helps build the computer skills of low-income youth in Chicago, says it’s an even greater challenge to find people to teach teens how to use the internet.

“Even the kids who have access don’t necessarily have people mentoring them to use the information to their greatest advantage,” says Bassill, president of Cabrini Connections and the Tutor/Mentor Connection.

Links:

Pew Internet & American Life Project
http://www.pewinternet.org

Cabrini Connections
http://www.cabriniconnections.net

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Newspaper: Calif. district broke eRate rules to buy laptops

The Daily Bulletin of Ontario, Calif., reports that the Pomona (Calif.) Unified School District might have violated eRate purchasing rules three years ago when it spent $2.4 million on 460 high-end laptops for its teachers. To make matters worse, the teachers found these $3,573 laptops all but useless because they did not come with any preinstalled software. The district said the laptops were meant to be classroom servers, even though they were never used in this manner. One teacher said she ended up using the expensive laptop as a “glorified DVD player” in her classroom.

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‘Buried Treasure’ helps school leaders use data to realize improvement

School district leaders can gauge the health of their schools by cutting through the blizzard of statistics in which they are buried to focus on a few key indicators, according to a new online report from the Center on Reinventing Public Education (CRPE) at the University of Washington’s Evans School of Public Affairs. According to “Buried Treasure: Developing a Management Guide from Mountains of Data,” seven essential pieces of information can provide school board members, superintendents, central office staff, and community leaders with important data to reach conclusions about how well their schools are doing. These pieces of information include (1) student achievement; (2) progress toward elimination of the achievement gap; (3) student attraction; (4) student engagement with school; (5) student retention/completion; (6) teacher attraction and retention; and (7) funding equity. To learn how to measure the success of your schools according to these key criteria, download a PDF copy of the report at this address.

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ED willing to bend NCLB rules to quell concerns in Florida

The Washington Times reports that the U.S. Department of Education’s recent decision to change assessment rules for the state of Florida has weakened a key portion of the No Child Left Behind law. Florida voters were unhappy that 77 percent of their schools failed to meet NCLB standards in 2004, and the Florida Department of Education and Gov. Jeb Bush requested special waivers to improve Florida’s overall NCLB report card.

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Nashville installing GPS devices on all of its 600 school buses

The City Paper of Nashville, Tenn., reports that the Nashville district has been busy this summer installing GPS technology on school buses, and it hopes to have all of the buses equipped with GPS by September. New radio units, donated by Nextel Communications for use during the 2005-06 school year, allow the buses to be tracked via satellite. as a result ne computer screen can display the location and speed of all buses at any given time.

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