On the second day of school Thursday at Evergreen Junior High, eighth-graders in the classroom of science teacher Vic Dalla Betta and special education teacher Melissa Hardman appeared to have dived right into a daily routine.
Chromebooks and iPads were out, an interactive white board was on and a question of the day on a dry-erase board asked, “Why is the Yellowstone River closed to human use?” After answering the question, students are given an assignment on carbon.
Dalla Betta guided students through the computer programs they will use to research nine questions.
“Once you’re finished, if you would like to go back and reply to somebody’s post from yesterday, you can do that,” Dalla Betta said.
One thing, however, was out of the ordinary: Montana Gov. Steve Bullock was there.
Evergreen was a stop on Bullock’s Innovate and Educate tour around the state.
The focus was on the devices students were using in class and the broadband that allows larger numbers of the school’s 750 students to be logged on than ever before.
Evergreen School District Superintendent Laurie Barron said internet speed was increased by 10 times this year by connecting to Montana Sky’s fiber-optic line. The district also added additional wireless access points and network switches.
“I walked in first day of school — they’ve had no assignments had not gone over anything — every single kid had a Chromebook out, was logged in under his or her own password, was posting to the Google classroom, which was feeding up to the smart board to post their comment,” Barron said. “It was so neat — the first day.”
She noted, however, “It wasn’t like that when we first started. We were dropping the wireless. We couldn’t figure out how to log in.”
The district had the devices, Barron said, “We just weren’t able to maximize it,” she said.
In 2015, the governor, Office of Public Instruction, School Administrators of Montana and the nonprofit EducationSuperHighway worked together to improve fiber-optic and high-speed internet connectivity throughout the state.
That meant providing improved connectivity to more than 23,000 students plus fiber-optic capabilities to serve 13,000 additional students.
Currently, one of Bullock’s initiatives is to dedicate $1 million toward broadband infrastructure that would be matched with federal money to continue those upgrades and improvements.
Back in the science classroom, students paired up to work on their assignment. Each student has a device. This year 120 Chromebooks were added in the junior high and 60 Chromebooks in the elementary.
Getting a device in each junior high student’s hands is a goal for Evergreen School District.
“We’ve got 240. We’re about 90 away from achieving that goal,” Barron said, noting that the district has been fiscally responsible, using federal E-Rate funding (a Schools and Libraries program of the Universal Service Fund under the direction of the Federal Communications Commission) and Title 1 money.
“I think by the end of the year we’ll have a Chromebook in every kid’s hand,” Barron said.
Barron explained to Bullock how tablets are used compared to laptops in the elementary and junior high.
“IPads are more research, search, find, whereas Chromebooks are more ‘do,’ and so it’s interesting to watch students transition from that device that helps them ‘find’ to the device that helps them ‘create,’” Barron said. “We start iPads at kindergarten, first, second and at third and fourth we start with Chromebooks. At fifth and sixth it’s a combination.”
Barron handed out a list of completed projects in recent years starting in 2013-14 where a Bring Your Own Device Initiative was initially implemented to improve internet access.
“Our district was the leading district in passing policy for Bring Your Device, because initially we didn’t have devices to give them. We wrote entire sets of policy and forms and parental permission that are still used today and the board approved,” Barron said.
Fewer students need to bring devices now because schools are providing them and doing so without asking taxpayers for additional funding through levies, Barron said.
“You’ll notice that it didn’t happen in one year. We’ve laid out a plan and completed projects little by little,” Baron said.
Using devices effectively in the classroom takes a lot professional development. Barron said the district has partnered with Beyond the Chalk to provide teachers with that professional development along with sending teachers to Google training and seminars.
Barron emphasized that education at Evergreen remains “teacher first, technology second.”
“I have seen a failed Chromebook lesson turn into a good lesson because the teacher was there,” Barron said.
If districts ultimately benefit from $1 million to improve broadband capabilities, will there be more money down the line to maintain it along with other technology that some schools struggle to fund?
“Certainly it’s not without some challenges,” Bullock said. “I continue to be pleased with, if you look at from the stateside point of it, we are investing more in public education — substantially more than ever before in our state’s history.
“This million dollars is more about getting in the fiber, getting in the connectivity to the schools,” Bullock said.
Hilary Matheson is a reporter for The Daily Inter Lake. She may be reached at 758-4431 or firstname.lastname@example.org.