The St. Paul School District plans to become the largest in the state to put iPads in the hands of all students.
The decision, to take effect in the 2015-16 school year, was announced Friday by Superintendent Valeria Silva and represents a reversal of the stance taken by the district in 2012.
That year, the district sought and won voter approval of a $9-million-per-year technology initiative dubbed "Personalized Learning Through Technology." Its proponents insisted that the initiative was not about supplying devices to students. They emphasized instead the creation of a "teaching and learning platform," or Facebook-like Web page, through which teachers and students could interact — with the goal of giving students the power to learn anytime, anywhere.
But the district and Dell, its partner in the project, have failed to develop a customized platform that could serve students and teachers "directly enough or quickly enough," Silva said. That work has been halted — with Dell agreeing to refund the $665,000 it has been paid in the form of future technology upgrades.
Matt Mohs, the district's chief academic officer, said Friday that efforts to meet a 2014-15 platform rollout were ramped up this spring and that it became apparent that "we weren't going to get what we wanted and what we expected, and likely weren't ever going to get what we wanted and expected."
St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman, a high-profile supporter of the 2012 levy proposal, was briefed on the shift in strategy. Tonya Tennessen, his communications director, said the mayor is "pleased that the district is getting money back from Dell and that the focus is on enabling every child to access technology that is critical to learning."
By redeploying resources to provide all students with devices, the district is capitalizing on advancements made in the use of iPads for learning, while also ensuring that minority and low-income students are on equal footing with technology, Mohs said.
In other districts
Elsewhere in Minnesota, the Spring Lake Park and Farmington districts have worked to put iPads or iPods in students' hands. They also have teamed on an Innovation Zone pilot project in which they share training resources, curriculum and strategies on how to incorporate personal technology into daily lessons.
Los Angeles is perhaps the largest district in the nation to pursue an iPad program.
The $1 billion Los Angeles initiative has hit snags, pushing back that school system's districtwide rollout to 2015 — a year later than planned, according to the Hechinger Report, a nonprofit news organization that covers topics related to education.
In St. Paul, officials have envisioned technology as a way to tailor learning to the needs of individual students. A struggling student, for example, could revisit coursework electronically. A high school junior could take classes in the morning, work an internship in the afternoon and complete online courses at night.
The learning platform was to be a place students could go to access class materials and other digital resources and to communicate with teachers.
But that project was stalled by factors that included difficulties in integrating the district's primary student data center, Infinite Campus, with the Dell platform. There also were issues with the platform's compatibility with mobile devices, Mohs said.
Silva, who at one time had hoped to have something available for public view in 2013-14, said during her State of the District speech in January that the plan then was to introduce the initiative to ninth-graders during the coming school year. Silva said Friday that she intends to have iPads available for use in half of the district's schools this fall and to deliver the devices to all students and teachers the following year.
'We have to switch'
Karen Randall, a veteran teacher now assigned to the district's Office of Personalized Learning, said the Dell platform had the potential to be a powerful tool. Suggestions by teachers to improve it simply couldn't be implemented swiftly enough, she said. She added that moving away from the platform model will allow the district to expand the use of iPads beyond the 30 ninth-grade classes that were to take part in the initiative this fall.
Jean O'Connell, a school board member who helped lead the 2012 levy campaign, said she supports the shift. She also credits district officials with having the courage to pull the plug. "I think one of the hardest decisions, as a person responsible for a project, is to say: 'I think we have to switch directions,' " she said.
As for possible voter backlash over the 2012 campaign, O'Connell said: "The money that was spent with Dell has been refunded, and that, I think, is an important part of this story."
Mohs said the district did not yet have an estimate for the cost of the iPads, which he said are likely to be leased from Apple under pricing arranged through the Minnesota Department of Administration.