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Magnet school boots up ever so slowly after move

The scene inside Bay Point Elementary's brand-new building looks more like Mission Control than a fourth-grade computer lab. Big black computers dominate desks occupied by dozens of fourth-graders and their tiny typing hands.

Across campus, a cluster of children looking at a big-screen TV monitor learn Spanish. Their teacher is controlling the images and lessons from a nearby computer. Even the cafeteria is wired for Powerpoint presentations at this magnet school for math, science and technology.

"It offers a lot of conveniences," said principal Gaye Lively.

Or at least it will when everything is finally hooked up.

Much like moving into a new house, moving into a new building has not been without its glitches, said officials who are playing catchup. Construction delays, budget cuts and the loss of a computer specialist set them back about four months.

The curriculum and students, having completed their first quarter grading period, have not suffered during the adjustment, Lively said. But things are not quite fully operational in this high-tech haven, where almost half of its 600 computers are waiting to be networked.

It is not an unexpected delay, said district officials.

While most businesses have a computer specialist for every 50 to 100 computers, Bay Point has one person for nearly 600.

In addition, "schools are a different animal than business, which typically run only a few programs while schools can run ... up to 100 and they're all talking to each other," said Judy Ambler, supervisor of instructional technology for Pinellas County schools.

Efforts to be efficient at Bay Point also eat up time. The school wants to use its new student and teacher workstations, which can cost up to $1,000 and $1,500 apiece, Ambler said. But administrators also want to use the nearly 300 computers its previous building was equipped with as well as donated ones.

That means reconfiguring them one by one, which takes 30 to 45 minutes per computer, said Kip Mitchell, Bay Point's remaining network administrator, whose duties also include training teachers on the new systems.

"I'm doing the job of two people," she said. "Sometimes things don't move as quickly as you'd like them to, but they are picking up."

The ultimate goal is to have about nine to 11 computers in each classroom by January.

Eventually a new software system will enable Bay Point's brand-new Dell computers and the older IBMs, Apples and iMacs to operate on one level, Lively said.

Last week she was able to maneuver inside a small room once stacked ceiling to floor with donated hard drives. The pile has since shrunk, reducing by half the space it occupied when the building opened in August.

The building originally was scheduled to open in April.

Officials said they finally gained clearance to open Bay Point for technology installation _ the last component to go into a newly constructed building _ as recently as two weeks ago because contractors still had not reached substantial completion on the building.

"There weren't a lot of big things," Lively said. But there were a lot of little ones, she noted, pointing to an inch-thick punch list of items ranging from drainage to cabinetry that had yet to be approved.

"People expect to be able to walk into a new school and have everything working right away, but we have to be realistic," she said, noting that moving into a new school can be similar to occupying a new house. "You see a big brick building go up and you think Okay, it's done. But it's the internal work that takes time."

Already Bay Point is operating with more high-tech equipment than most schools, she said. And that will double when all of its computers are either fully networked or operating independently as designed.

Those who need the computers for assignments have access to them, assured teachers and administrators. Third-, fourth- and fifth-graders are preparing for FCATs on their new Dells.

"That's what we do every day," 9-year-old Kyle Couch said inside a morning computer lab.

"And you earn tokens and get to play games," friend Kyle Sowers added.

For every classroom equipped with at least one new networked computer and several standalones, a few older models sit abandoned at the side of the room like modern-day velveteen rabbits.

Installing the computers has been a learning process both for the district and Bay Point, said Lively, noting it must be done correctly now or "we'll pay for it for years." Using an integrated phone system that doubles as an intercom and also allows multiple teachers to order educational resources and videos has been another. But the perks include added versatility and easier access to resources.

"I just see a lot of opportunities down the road," Lively said, adding she is pleased with the achievements made in the school's first months.

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