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When it comes to technology, Florida schools struggle to keep up with students

LAND O'LAKES — Three teachers stared intently at a wide-screen Apple TV, laptops at their fingertips, testing a vocabulary game for a U.S. history class.

On the other side of a partition, about a dozen sixth-graders learned how to download e-books from their media center's growing digital collection.

To the right, a bank of Macintosh computers lined the wall for visiting classes. To the left, carts of laptops stood ready for teachers to whisk off to their rooms.

At first glance, Rushe Middle School seems way ahead of the technology curve. But in many ways, it is behind.

The school has one computer for every six students, well behind the Pasco County school district's goal of one for every three. Its classroom Internet connections are spotty. And some teachers stick to paper and pencil.

State officials have talked for years about beefing up public schools for the digital age. Gov. Rick Scott made it part of his re-election pitch, calling for $80 million in technology spending for 2015.

But as lawmakers and educators prepare for the legislative session, they face a complicated debate that goes beyond the question of how much to spend on technology. The other big issue: what to spend it on.

The state is racing to get schools and students ready for a new computerized test that replaces the FCAT in the spring. But other issues beg for attention, too: technology training for teachers, infrastructure to support new hardware and, perhaps most importantly, how best to use technology in the classroom.

"The digital classroom is really upon us," said state Sen. John Legg, R-Trinity, who hosted a Nov. 13 symposium on the subject for Florida educators and industry leaders. "We need to figure out how to implement it."

The kids, meanwhile, already know what they want.

Students at Rushe said they'd like to do more computer-based projects and online research, not to mention having the ability to keep notes and an assignment calendar on devices.

They like to use computers "all the time," sixth-grader Brock Mantei said.

Trying to keep up with them is a key goal for leaders at the state and federal levels.

President Barack Obama, who hosted an education technology conference last week, deemed the issue a national imperative. Other countries are much further ahead, he said.

"As I've said, in a country where we expect free Wi-Fi with our coffee, the least we can do is expect our schools to be properly wired," the president told the group attending his White House event.

"We've got to bring the world to our children's fingertips," he said. "If they think school is 20 to 30 years behind them, they're going to lose interest in schools."

Getting there is half the battle, though. At Legg's symposium, educators and technology experts talked about the peaks and valleys.

The hardware needs to support the software and be affordable to maintain, said Michael Eugene, chief of operations at Orange County schools. The software needs to meet academic demands and be compatible with available operating systems, he added.

Teachers must have adequate training on equipment and programs, Hillsborough chief technology officer Anna Brown said. And schools need the proper infrastructure to allow the systems to run.

Student-owned personal devices, which many schools now encourage, often don't meet the standards that districts spend time and money to develop. Access to technology outside the school can be problematic, too.

"Limiting learning to the school bell schedule isn't always sufficient," Miami-Dade superintendent Alberto Carvalho said during Obama's summit. But many needy communities are "digital deserts," where students might not have Internet access at home, much less a computer.

Miami-Dade passed a billion-dollar bond issue, in part to pay for its upgrades. But that's not an option for every district.

"I can give them the device, but if they don't have the ability to pull the data, what good is the resource?" said Tom Moffses, superintendent of Hamilton County schools in rural North Florida.

Moffses has tried to bring wireless hot spots to underserved areas. But the effort has had limited success, because the sites have poor cellphone service.

"It's a comedy of errors when it comes to things like that," he said

A recent analysis found the tax-poor, 1,700-student Hamilton district would need about $3.2 million to meet its technology needs, he added.

At Rushe, opened in 2007, educators are trying to put all the pieces in place. Its media center "collaboration stations," where the teachers and students were working, debuted less than a month ago.

"I am looking at it in terms of getting (technology) in the hands of kids, so they can use it in a way they would use it in the future," principal David Salerno said.

How much will this cost?

"It depends," said Karen Cator, executive director of Digital Promise, a nonprofit focused on technology issues in education.

Some schools need only devices, she noted, while others require bandwidth, software, training and more.

Florida hasn't had a good handle on this, even as it required districts to get digital.

In 2012, the State Board of Education requested $442 million for school technology. But the focus was more on spending the money to test students, not teach them.

"The entire discussion was driven by assessment," said Tony Bennett, Florida's education commissioner at the time.

The number shrank to $100 million, owing mostly to political pressure, and then didn't even get funded.

"While it was a great catalyst to get us talking about the issue," Bennett said, "we should have been talking about instruction: What does it take to build a classroom, school and district for a 21st century learner?"

The next year, lawmakers allocated $40 million for district technology needs. They also required districts to create digital classroom plans, which were due just a few weeks ago.

Legg, who pushed for the plans, said he hoped they would help his colleagues understand the full scope of the need that schools have. He did not expect an instant or complete solution.

"I have heard some say we can get it done in one year," Legg said. "Those of you in the field know there is no way that can happen. (But) the reality is, if we do not take the step forward, we will be left behind. The students will leave us behind."

Contact Jeffrey S. Solochek at jsolochek@tampabay.com. Follow @jeffsolochek.

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