Five ways to make smart ed-tech investments

3. Improve the home-school connection.

According to Paul Sanfrancesco, director of technology for Garnet Valley School District in Pennsylvania, the wisest investment his district has made with ARRA funds has been implementing a community-based web portal, developed by Schoolwires—a company that specializes in online content management, Web 2.0 functionality, and other web-based applications in a single, unified platform.

“It is rare that you find technology that has an impact on every aspect of the district community,” Sanfrancesco said. “For students, stakeholders, community members, and staff, this portal has changed the culture of the district. Students now engage with blogs, podcasts, and digital drop boxes. Students have also created web pages, and parents now have a portal for communication and eMail alerts. Teachers have open online office hours, interactive web sites, and blog pages.”

Sanfrancesco said the system is saving thousands of dollars for the district by allowing it to go paperless and providing a quicker, and cheaper, way to communicate with the community.

Fishbein also believes that web portals play a crucial role in fostering good community relations and make a wise long-term investment of ARRA funds.

“Our parents would hear from parents in neighboring districts about how they are able to communicate directly with the schools through a web-based portal and quickly and easily access information about their children online. Parents in our district grew curious and a bit concerned, wondering why we didn’t offer them the same services,” he said.

Skyward has provided Fishbein’s district with a parent web portal as part of its management suite.

4. Go green.

From providing cost savings over the long term to helping the environment, going green is another wise use of ARRA funds.

One example is the University of Minnesota, which decided to make a one-time energy investment to make its 320 campus buildings (serving more than 66,000 students and employing more than 18,500 staff and faculty) more energy efficient.

After just 15 months, the project already had already met the university’s goal of reducing energy consumption by 5 percent over the initial 18-month period—resulting in annual energy savings of more than $2.4 million.

Though the university did not use ARRA funds, instead using a performance contract to begin the project earlier, campus leaders say schools could make the same type of investment with stimulus money.

“We strive to be world-class from an energy management standpoint, and the integration we’ve done has helped us get there,” said Mark Peterson, senior controls engineer for the university.

The school’s energy management group has worked with Johnson Controls to leverage the reporting capabilities of Johnson’s Metasys building management system and use it to maximize energy and operational efficiency.

For example, programs are run to calculate the amount of hours fans have to run for a particular week, which are then compared with the amount they were scheduled to run.

“This helps us see if fans are not running as programmed or if schedules are being overridden, which would be difficult to do otherwise with such a large university,” said Peterson. “We use the Metasys system to harvest the data, which [are] then stored and published on the web for people to see as a dashboard metric.”

South Carolina’s Charleston Public Schools also used its ARRA funds for a green cause.

According to Superintendent Jeff Stubblefield, the district added 20,000 square feet to a middle school using partnership and stimulus funds. The new addition also features 116 sky lights and other green implementations, which will greatly reduce lighting and other energy costs.

For Stubblefield, using money now to save money later is the best investment you can make.

5. Be creative.

Though making wise, long-term investment decisions might seem to preclude hiring more staff, because you’d have to keep paying them when the money runs out, some districts have employed creative means to create or save jobs.

For instance, Illinois’ School District 300 used ARRA funds to launch a new program that created job for the district, and is also sustainable, by using the stimulus money as a bridge to other funding sources.

According to Cheryl Crates, chief financial officer for the district, Illinois’ basic funding formula allows for morning and afternoon kindergarten. The district wanted to start a full-day kindergarten program but would have had to pay the first-year costs itself, before the state funding kicked in.

“ARRA funds gave us a perfect opportunity to start an extended-day program for our Title I schools and to expect some long-term funding … in year two, three, and beyond, because the state formula will then fund [an] increased student population one year later. But the startup costs are always the problem,” Crates explained.

The district added classrooms to four of its Title I schools, and each of those provided two to three sections of extended-day services, explained Luz Baez, the district’s grant director.

“We employed nine half-time teachers, or about four to four-and-a-half teachers more than we would have ordinarily funded,” said Crates, “so it gave us an opportunity to [create] jobs.”

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