Manatee County School District uses grant to upgrade technology available to middle school students.
During her sixth-period Microsoft computer class, sixth-grader Kayla Morris splits her time between her iPhone and her laptop.
Armed with technology, the student at R. Dan Nolan Middle School uses her cell phone as backup when the school's internet isn't working fast enough and she has to do research for a project.
"It's easy to just Google things I need to know for class," Morris said.
Like her classmates, she's grown up using computers and that trend isn't about to change.
As schools around the country incorporate the newest technology into the classroom, the Manatee County School District has attempted to stay ahead of the trend by providing students with up-to-date tools, such as iPads, laptops and software programs that translate other languages into English.
On Dec. 8, the school board approved the expenditure of a $976,385 Digital Classrooms Grant from the state's Department of Education to keep pace with expanding technology.
"Today's kids were born and are growing up in the age of technology," said Cynthia Saunders, the deputy superintendent for instructional services. "But we're not using technology just to use it. It's for educational purposes and to prepare them for those online courses they might take at a college or university, or for their future careers."
As part of the Digital Classrooms Plan, also known as the Innovative Spaces Project, Nolan and middle schools countywide will receive a revamp of technology in one classroom per school. Some of those model classrooms will be available for tours Feb. 1.
Haile, Lincoln and King middle schools are the tour sites, which will show teachers more innovative classroom, Saunders said. District officials hope to have the new technology in place by April, so teachers can start learning how to use the equipment before summer break and then can attend training sessions throughout the summer.
Rather than giving an across-the-board, dollar amount to every school, the money will be distributed based on need and the type of technology purchased.
Superintendent Dr. Diana Greene said middle schools were chosen to receive the upgrade, because there are only 10 as compared to 33 elementary schools.
Teachers were required to submit applications to be considered for the project.
"Some teachers feel more comfortable using technology than others," Saunders said.
Kyle Holbrook, a Braden River Middle technology teacher, received a science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) grant last year from AT&T and purchased a 3D printer and laser engraver.
He also would like to secure more 3D printers, which melt plastic to create objects that students design.
"Math teachers could use the printers to better explain Pythagorean theorem," Holbrook said. "The printers can create landscapes and show dimensions, which could really be incorporated into any subject."
Ahead of the curve
Other teachers also are excited to have access to newer technology. Promethean boards are interactive, touchscreen, white boards that have been replacing traditional chalkboards over the last few years. Nolan Middle already has a few of the boards, Assistant Principal Tamara Cornwell said.
She'd like to see more of the boards, while also replacing some of the projector systems with more advanced ones that can hang from the ceiling rather than taking up desk space, she said.
When Cornwell started at Nolan Middle eight years ago, the school had a need for technology but no money to bring those dreams to life.
In 2013, she spearheaded the school's Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) campaign, which allowed students to bring laptops, iPads, cell phones and other technology to school to assist them in assignments.
"I noticed kids were way more engaged when they could use technology," Cornwell said. "When they come to school, phones turn from communication to education."
The school district would like to assure that students have equal access to technology. The Manatee County School District has revamped Nolan and other schools with newer computers. Every student doesn't have a new laptop to use, but the district is working on bettering classroom technology one grant at a time.
"We're not where we need to be, yet," Greene said. "Overall, its been a long time since we refreshed our technology."