SANTA FE, N.M. — Piñon Elementary School teacher Violetrae Anaya admits that her fifth-grade students outsmarted her the first time she gave them an assignment to perform on their new school-provided Chromebook laptop computers.
The 9- and 10-year-olds were supposed to research a topic and write a report, presumably using the keyboard to begin an Internet search, gather information, then write a report.
“They outwitted me,” she said with a laugh, relating that one student figured out how to turn on the computer’s voice dictation feature and shared it with others. “They were talking into the microphone and (the computer) was doing the typing for them. It was doing all the research for them.”
Across the hall, Delara Sherma has had similar experiences with her group of fifth-graders as, together, students and teachers learn to use the new technology being integrated into the classrooms.
“We’re learning along with the kids and try to stay a step ahead, but it’s hard,” she said. “The students have grown so much the last two years.”
Two years ago, Sherma said she had two beat-up HP computers in her classroom, and Anaya was teaching her class in a portable building with just a blackboard.
Now, teachers have their own computers and iPads, and their classrooms are equipped with whiteboards and smart boards.
Piñon is one of the first schools in Santa Fe to reap the benefits of an Education Technology Note funded through property taxes that’s intended to pay for a five-year, $55 million overhaul of the district’s network, as well as put an age-appropriate device, such as a laptop computer or tablet, in the hands of every student.
Last year, each classroom at Piñon got 10 iPads that students shared. This year, every student from third to sixth grade got a laptop.
“We’ve learned how to make graphs, and we can make charts, and it’s really cool,” said one of Sherma’s students, Angelina Sandoval, who served as a “digital ambassador” during a community forum at the school Wednesday night.
The event was meant to showcase how the school district is using new technology in the classroom in anticipation of a vote in less than two weeks that will determine whether funding continues for the district’s five-year Digital Learning Plan.
On Feb. 2, we’ll learn if local residents are willing to spring for three more years of funding through property tax payments. Voting yes will not raise the tax any higher, but voting no will save property owners $1.50 per every $1,000 value on the property, or $150 on a property valued at $300,000.
Asking voters’ permission
This is the first time voters will have a say on the matter. For the past two years, the Santa Fe school board exercised the authority the Legislature bestowed upon school districts to impose a local tax to pay for technology improvements in the schools.
The 1.5-mill tax didn’t go over well with some homeowners, many of whom were unaware of the school board’s action and were shocked to see a significant increase on their property tax bills starting in the fall of 2014. The school mill levy was only part of it. Mill rate increases from county government and Santa Fe Community College, among smaller increases from other entities, also showed up on tax bills, causing the County Treasurer’s Office to be deluged with phone calls from angry taxpayers.
The law that allowed the school board to impose the tax without voter approval has since been modified to allow school boards to take the question to voters, or, as one school board member put it, “ask permission” from the community to impose the tax.
Two years ago, when the matter came before the school board, there was reluctance among its members to exercise the right granted under the 1997 Educational Technology Equipment Act. The vote was 3-2, with Lorraine Price and Glenn Wikle opposed, both saying that taxpayers having no say in the matter played some part in their decision.
“I personally believe if you’re going to take money out of people’s pockets, you need to ask permission,” Price said at the time.
Both Price and Wikle also cited concerns they had with what the tax would do to people on fixed incomes.
Partly due to a negative backlash from the community and uneasiness among school board members, Santa Fe led the effort to have the law changed. Rep. Brian Egolf sponsored the bill, which sailed through the Legislature and was signed into law by Gov. Susana Martinez last year.
Connecting kids to the future
So far, the tax has generated about $20 million. But more than $30 million more is needed to fund the final three years of the five-year plan.
“It’s important to have the continuation of a plan that we’ve already started,” said Linda Trujillo, who spent the past year as school board president. “If it doesn’t get approved, there’s a good percentage of schools that won’t get access to what’s needed for them to compete in a 21st-century world market.”
Trujillo can make such statements because she’s not a paid employee of the school district. Legally, as Superintendent Joel Boyd told more than 100 gathered in the Piñon school gym Wednesday, the school district can’t tell people which way to vote.
It can encourage people to vote, and make a case for the need to keep pace with technological advances and incorporate digital learning into the classrooms.
SFPS is spending $15,000 on a marketing campaign to promote the election, including an in-house video, yard signs, rack cards, banners, buttons, bus decals and, possibly, some last-minute mailers.
That’s on top of the $30,000 it’s spending to hold the election.
Historically, school elections have a low turnout. Last year, with the school maintenance mill levy and one contested school board position on the ballot, only about 5,250 of 87,000 eligible voters, about 6 percent, voted. The turnout was only a little better in 2013 with two contested races on the ballot.
Still, the consensus among school board members was that 5,000 people making the decision to continue the property tax is better than the five of them.
Trujillo says she expects voters to approve funding for the final three years of the Education Technology Note. The community has always been supportive of the schools at the polls.
Just last year, even after the backlash from some property tax payers, voters passed a 1.5-mill levy that generated $9 million to pay to maintain school facilities by a nearly 3-to-1 margin.
“We’re thankful every day that the community of Santa Fe understands what we’re doing to improve education for our kids,” said Carl Gruenler, deputy superintendent for business operations.
About half the schools in the district have begun to benefit from the upgrades paid for by the tax hike. The first ones included two new schools on the city’s south side, El Camino Real Academy and Nina Otero Community School. Atalaya, Kearny, Piñon and Ramirez Thomas elementary schools and Ortiz Middle School also received upgrades, while students at Mandela International Magnet School received personal computers.
This year, Cesar Chavez, Nava and Salazar elementary schools, Capshaw and DeVargas middle schools, and Capital High School are getting upgrades. The remaining dozen or so schools, plus five charter schools, are due to receive upgrades over the next few years, but only if voters approve the ballot question.
In addition to added tools in the classroom, upgrades have been made to the district’s internal network, bandwidth and security.
“It’s like a three-legged stool,” Gruenler said. “You need to be sure the infrastructure is capable of supporting the work.”
According to the ballot question, the funding could be used to purchase such things as television systems, copper and fiber optic wiring, network connection devices, digital communication equipment, servers, switches, software licenses and tools used to implement technology in the schools. It also allows for improvements, alterations or modifications to existing buildings to accommodate the technology, as well as technical support and training.
Gruenler said current budget projections for the Digital Learning Plan called for about 38 percent of the remaining funding to go toward purchasing equipment for all the schools. About 31 percent would pay for infrastructure and another 31 percent for support.
Support includes teacher training in the technology to help keep them a step ahead of students, who are growing up in a digital world. At Piñon, Felicia Maestas serves as digital coach and is at the school three days a week.
The teachers appreciate the help and the technology.
“As a teacher, using Google Classroom makes my life so much easier,” Sherma said, adding that she’s able to customize a daily learning plan for each student. “It’s a big change for teachers and staff, but it’s worth it.”
Students like it, too. Vincenzo Pell, one of Anaya’s students, said he wants to become a scientist when he grows up, “which would involve a lot of computer work.”
He said the new technology not only prepares him for the career of his choice, but also prepares him faster.
“I can type in, ‘What’s the capital of Idaho?’ and the answer will just pop up. If I only had an atlas, I’d have to flip through the pages and find it.”
“They love it; it’s their freedom,” Anaya said of the computers. “It lets them go explore.”