Student laptop distribution underway as part of PowerUp initiative

Almost 19,000 HISD students are receiving laptops this month as part of the district’s one-to-one initiative that will eventually give every high school student a computer. The initiative – PowerUp – will not only give students 24-hour access to a laptop and a variety of software but to digital-age instruction that will transform teaching and learning both inside and outside the classroom.

“PowerUp is not about the device,” said Superintendent Terry Grier. “This is about creating anytime-anywhere learning for our students so they can have the world at their fingertips. We want to make sure they learn skills that complement technology so they won’t be replaced by technology.”

Grier announced the PowerUp initiative during his address at the 2013 State of the Schools, asking staff, city leaders, local businesses, and community members to visualize a classroom where teachers use technology to create interactive instruction. Less than a year later, students at 11 schools in phase one of the project are receiving laptops, and teachers have spent an entire semester learning how to use the device and access a variety of digital resources to make their instruction more engaging, interactive, and student-centered.

“I am excited, and my students are excited,” said Madison High School teacher Shannon Smith. “I had already started using more technology and web tools in my classroom for instruction, and now I will be able to take it to the next level. Many of my students can’t afford a computer, so this is really going to equalize the playing field at Madison and many other HISD schools.”

Smith and teachers from the 11 PowerUp campuses in phase one received their laptops last August and have been attending weekend, after school, and early-release-day trainings developed and provided by HISD’s instructional technology and professional development departments. These trainings will continue for the remainder of the 2013–2014 school year. In addition, a group of “early adopter” teachers, as well as campus leaders from each of the 11 schools, are participating in regular training sessions with staff from the Mooresville Graded School District in North Carolina. Mooresville has one of the most successful one-to-one initiatives in the U.S. and has seen impressive academic gains since the program was implemented six years ago.

“Teacher training was a priority from the start of our PowerUp project, and working with Mooresville only reinforced our strategy that teacher training and development needed to be a crucial part of our implementation plan to ensure the success of PowerUp,” said Chief Technology Officer Lenny Schad. “I continually tell people that this is not just a technology initiative. This involves almost every department in the district, including curriculum, professional development, leadership, communications, and instructional technology.”

In addition to training and professional development for teachers, HISD’s curriculum department has created an enhanced set of documents that incorporates an expanded and robust array of online instructional strategies and resources for teachers to use in their classroom. The documents link to currently adopted instructional materials, online district resources and database subscriptions, and other high-quality online instructional resources and materials. In addition, a package of key instructional software is loaded on each student and teacher laptop.

Additionally, each device is pre-loaded with district-approved filtering software that blocks keyword content and inappropriate websites, including some social media sites, while in use at school, home, and anywhere that has Internet access. Before students are issued their laptops, they are required to take a digital citizenship class that reviews the district’s policy on proper use of technology and electronic services. Both parents and students must also sign a laptop loan/acceptable-use agreement and pay an annual $25 non-refundable security deposit fee.

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The 11 schools in phase one of the initiative are Austin, Bellaire, Chavez, the Energy Institute, Kashmere, Lee, Madison, Sam Houston, Sharpstown, Young Men’s College Preparatory Academy, and Young Women’s College Preparatory Academy. In phase two, 18 high schools will be added during the 2014–2015 school year, and an additional 15 high schools will distribute laptops in phase three during the 2015–2016 school year.

HISD is repurposing dollars from others areas and using Title I and Title II funds to pay for the majority of the costs associated with implementing phase one of PowerUp. Because the initiative is comprehensive and involves more than just technology upgrades, money spent in other areas has been redirected to carry the burden and minimize impact on the overall district budget for the 2013–2014 school year. The district cost to lease a laptop (which includes software and warranty) to each student is roughly $260 a year.

HISD recognizes that students may not have access to the Internet away from school, so each HISD campus is equipped with wireless Internet. Additionally, all Houston-area public libraries have Internet. HISD is also developing partnerships with local organizations and businesses to increase the availability of free and reduced-cost Internet services throughout the city.