The flowcharts are ready. The laptops are tagged. The WiFi is checked. The power strips are purchased.
With the start of school just hours away, El Paso Independent School District officials are preparing to distribute laptops to every teacher and high school student in the district. It’s a first for El Paso County, though many school districts are moving in that direction.
More than 130,000 elementary and secondary students across the county return to school tomorrow. Classes also begin at El Paso Community College and the University of Texas at El Paso.
A new school year brings with it anxiety and excitement, and, for the EPISD, a unique challenge: how to pass out 22,500 laptops.
The EPISD’s multi-million-dollar initiative, called PowerUp, follows its move to digital high school textbooks last fall, embracing the inevitability of technology and the opportunities it brings, officials said.
“This is really about a shift in instruction in how we are teaching and learning,” EPISD spokeswoman Melissa Martinez said. “Very literally, it’s a change in devices, but philosophically, it’s also a change in culture…We are starting to embrace it rather than fight it.”
It also promotes equity, officials said. Every student will have a laptop, regardless of income, though students can also opt out of the program and take their own device to class.
Giving every student a laptop requires educators to give up some of their control, as well as trust students will care for expensive technology and use it responsibly, officials said. It also requires an extensive plan for how to get 18,000 HP Stream laptops into students’ hands and 4,500 Dell 3340s to teachers.
EPISD officials turned to other Texas school districts that the same for guidance, even borrowing the name of Houston Independent School District’s program: PowerUp.
Most teachers already picked up their devices this summer, but high school students will receive theirs over a two-week span, starting Friday.
EPISD Chief Technology Officer Stephen Stiles has half a dozen flowcharts and checklists that outline every stage of what he called the upcoming “circus,” from gathering parent permission slips to troubleshooting technical glitches.
The computers arrived earlier this spring and summer, and EPISD crews unboxed each one, inventoried them and tagged them with a barcode, Stiles recalled. Crews hooked up 30 laptops to a server at a time and installed the necessary software in 20-minute sets.
They also tested each school’s wireless Internet network to make sure it could support so many devices.
Workers pushed carts of laptops in and out of classrooms and turned them on to test the network, Stiles said. EPISD also contracted with a third-party that ran a simulation, he said.
The laptops will soon be delivered en masse to schools, primarily to science classes because they have more electrical outlets, Stiles said, though EPISD purchased extra power strips. The laptops will need to charge after months in storage.
EPISD hired 24 temporary employees for three weeks to help with the distribution alone. The employees will make sure each computer works, then the teachers will take over, explaining to students how to use the technology.
That teachers, not technicians, lead the orientation is intentional, Stiles said.
“All the technology in the world can’t replace a good teacher,” he said.
Students will take their laptops home, where they will have the same online and program restrictions they do at school, Stiles said.
Parents must sign permissions slips to opt their children in or out of the program and agree to a fee schedule if the laptop is damaged or lost.
EPISD paid $220 for each student laptop and $494 for the teacher laptops.
Stiles said he expects broken screens, hinges and keys will be common problems, but the budget for repairs isn’t yet set.
This school year, EPISD contracted technicians to provide on-campus technical support at each high school.
If problems arise, students will take their laptops to the technician and receive a replacement which will allow the students to return to class immediately, Stiles said.
Each laptop also is equipped with a tracking device so EPISD officials can hunt them down if they’re lost or stolen, Stiles said. The district has had success using tracking devices on teacher laptops over the years and has kept lost devices to a minimum, Stiles said.
Despite all the planning, officials said many aspects of PowerUp are still up for debate: Will students take the laptops home over the summer? What social media will they be allowed to access on the computers?
EPISD officials said they intend for the initiative to grow and change over the coming months and years, and for some of those questions to be answered as they go. Eventually, they hope to give laptops to every middle school student too.