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Chester County Press

U-CF School Board looks to expand technology and prepare final budget

04/14/2015 03:19PM ● By J. Chambless
Construction crews will be wasting no time this summer in Unionville-Chadds Ford schools. Long-planned renovations at Patton Middle School will begin on June 17, the day after classrooms empty for the summer, according to Rick Hostetler, the school district's supervisor of building and grounds.
At the April 13 meeting of the Unionville-Chadds Ford School Board, Hostetler outlined the projects that will be taking place at Patton this summer. Classrooms will be renovated, with a target completion date of Aug. 14. The school's entryway and offices will be reconfigured, so that the new entrance of the school will be at the corner of the building, near Route 82. The new entryway will be much more secure. The existing entrance will be the site of reconfigured administration and health offices, and that area should be finished by Dec. 9, Hostetler said.
The big-ticket item at Hillendale Elementary School this summer is the complete replacement of the school's outdated lighting, which is so old that replacement bulbs cannot be purchased. The upgrade to more efficient lighting will run about $668,000, Hostetler said. Partial carpet replacement at Hillendale will cost about $66,000, he said.
The auditorium roof at Unionville High School, which has proven to be very noisy during rainstorms, has been the focus of extensive study. Hostetler said the architect, in tandem with an acoustical engineer, has come up with a final plan for fixing the roof. "We will leave the existing metal roof," Hostetler said, "and put in four inches of additional insulation on top. Then there will be a rubber membrane roof on top of that. This will be tested with a model, so that we have a level of comfort that this will be effective."
The fix will cost the district nothing, Hostetler added, since the architect's insurance will cover the renovation.
The proposed 2015-16 budget is working its way toward approval in June, and Robert Cochran, the district's director of business and operations, laid out the current numbers for the board members. The proposed tax rate is 27.15 mills for Chester County (a 2.69 percent increase over last year), and 23.03 mills in Delaware County, for a weighted average increase of 2.89 percent. Predicting total expenditures of $79,237,362, the district is proposing a 4.28 percent increase for 2015-16, using about $500,000 in exceptions to allow exceeding the Act 1 Index.
There will be a public budget hearing on May 4 in front of the entire school board, with additional days scheduled on May 5 and 6 if necessary. The board will approve the preliminary final budget on May 11, and the final budget will be approved on June 15. There will be much debate, said board member Keith Knauss, over which of three possible scenarios will be chosen for the budget. "Let the games begin," he said with a smile.
At next week's board meeting, the board will vote on moving to a trimester reporting of grades for K-5 students in the district, instead of the current quarterly reporting. The trimester schedule has been widely welcomed by teachers and parents, and will result in the same curriculum being taught, but with less emphasis on review for tests and more emphasis on classroom instruction.
In his report on legislative issues, board member Michael Rock said he attended a recent meeting of the CCIU Legislative Committee, "and I was stunned at the opposition I saw to high-stakes testing," Rock said, referring to mandated tests that students must pass to get their high-school diplomas.
"There is, among school board directors in our county, a growing opposition to this testing," he said. "This is showing up in the Tredyffrin-Easttown School District, in Lower Merion, in the West Chester Area School District and the Haverford School District. I was surprised, since we have seen none of this."
Rock presented statistics supplied by opponents to the testing that claimed huge amounts of time are being devoted to administering the tests, that there is a high failure rate of about 65 percent, and other concerns, including how final project-based assessments -- which are an option if a student cannot successfully complete the tests -- will be graded. Staffing needs will have to be adjusted, adding significantly to costs, Rock said.
At a meeting of the Curriculum and Educational Technology Committee that preceded the board meeting, the board and administration focused on expanding the use of Chromebooks and online technology in the classroom.
The Canvas learning management system, which is being piloted in the district by 20 teachers, has been a huge success, according to John Nolen, the director of curriculum and instruction. "The Canvas system provides a core framework that we're very happy with, and we're eager to expand it," Nolen said.
The reaction from teachers and students has been very positive, with benefits including online tutorials and class assignments so that students who miss a class -- or who need to watch an explanation several times -- can access the multimedia information at home or in class as needed. Online forums spark lively debates among students, including those who might not speak up in class. Students can turn in assignments online as late at 11:59 p.m. on the day they are due, not by the end of the school day. 
The Chromebooks are the tool of choice for students and teachers, Nolen said. At a cost of about $320 each, the devices are already supplied to students in the elementary, middle and high schools. 
The administration is considering charging a $50 fee so that middle school students can have their own Chromebook for the whole school year. Or, families may elect to buy their own. 
Tim Hoffman, principal of Patton Middle School, where the learning management system is being tested by sixth-grade classes, said that families and teachers have embraced the technology. 
"For us, some input on the pilot has been anecdotal," Hoffman said, reading from an e-mail he got from a parent praising the program. "Perhaps a definition of success could be maintaining our grades or even going up, but also an improvement in the educational environment for our kids. We can teach digital citizenship and prepare them for using this technology in their later schooling. This technology is already a part of their lives."
Nolen said the Canvas system allows the district's four elementary schools to share information and resources, something that was very difficult previously. 
All of the pilot program's costs have been funded through the district's budget for curriculum and technology so far. The district does not plan to buy a Chromebook for each student, but will seek to expand the pilot program with another 150 Chromebooks for students in the sixth-grade pilot next year, and 120 more Chromebooks for the high school, so that two teachers in the pilot program can have the devices in their classroom all day. Currently, student demand is exceeding the number of devices available.
In the coming years, infrastructure will need to be upgraded to handle the increase in online devices, with a full roll-out of the Canvas learning management system planned in two years.

To contact Staff Writer John Chambless, e-mail [email protected]