As you consider how to spend your remaining stimulus money—and whatever other funds you might have available this year—keep in mind that the money might represent the last best chance you’ll have to make a one-time investment that can have a long-term impact on your schools.
But beware of investments that can’t be sustained once the money runs dry. Say you purchase smart phones for staff members, for instance. While the idea of having staff constantly connected might seem like a good investment, what happens when monthly service charges won’t be covered by a funding surplus? Will you be able to afford these on your own in a time of tight budgets?
Many school leaders are realizing that long-term investments, such as in education technology infrastructure or “green” initiatives, will garner the most return on investment—both fiscally and in terms of student achievement.
In talking with school leaders around the country, we’ve come up with five tips for how to spend the remaining stimulus money while getting the best bang for your buck.
1. Upgrade and overhaul.
Now is the time to give your school or district a technology facelift, experts say.
“Think systemically,” says the State Educational Technology Directors Association. “Look toward the future in terms of planning the infrastructure you’ll need for the next 10 years.”
Debra Zamparelli, director of curriculum and instruction for Middlesex Borough schools in New Jersey, said her district used American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) funds to upgrade its technology infrastructure: Each of the schools became a wireless environment, which cost approximately $182,000.
“Also, we purchased six to eight netbooks for each of our elementary reading classrooms and provided them with a web-based software program that creates an individualized education plan for each child and tailors instruction and pace to the needs of the individual,” she said. “This program is available to the children at school and also at home. We have also used the funds to continue to equip each of our classrooms with our Technology Package, which consists of an LCD [projector], an ENO interactive whiteboard [from PolyVision], and an ELMO document camera.”
Zamparelli bought 75 netbooks for approximately $22,500. The software cost appromimately $20,000, and the projectors and whiteboards cost about $80,000.
“We wanted to purchase items that support our district goals,” she explained. “We wanted to focus on student engagement and achievement, which we believe is accomplished through the use of technology. We also wanted to focus on individual needs and different learning styles. The software package also provides us with a connection to home. It [was] important for us to use this money to purchase things we feel will benefit our educational system and that we would probably not be able to afford with local funds.”
For schools that are already equipped with wireless access and classroom technologies, the stimulus marks an opportunity to purchase their own fiber connections, said Walter L. Fox, executive director of information technology at Richland County School District One in South Carolina.
“Today, we need much more bandwidth than we can afford to purchase through leasing,” said Fox. “Many school districts have purchased their own fiber, and this has eliminated long-term lease costs. The district would then only have to pay for a maintenance contract for the fiber or simply pay for repairs.”
2. Get smarter in using data.
Data management systems can provide school leaders with critical information that leads to better overall performance. They can also “drive continuous improvement efforts focused on improving achievement in Title I schools,” says the U.S. Department of Education.
New Jersey’s Ridgewood Village Public School District decided to use its ARRA funds to implement Skyward’s Student Management Suite.
“One of the provisions in the bill was designed to help schools improve their assessment and analysis of student performance, and that was exactly what we needed,” said Superintendent Daniel Fishbein.
Ridgewood was able to fund 100 percent of the project using stimulus money, Fishbein said, because the project met two key criteria: It was a single, integrated project, and the primary focus of the system is to enable schools to improve their assessment and analysis of student performance.
“If we did not have that stimulus money, with the types of cuts that we sustained, there’s no way we would have been able to fund this critical project,” he said.
Ridgewood has been working with Skyward over the past year to implement the system, which it plans to fully deploy this fall. “We were already able to leverage part of the system to manage course requests this spring, and by this summer parents will have full access to the family portal,” said Fishbein. “New Jersey school districts just lost all state aid for the upcoming school year. So our need to drive efficiency and productivity with as few resources as possible will be more critical than ever.”