News Column

Many Students Use Aging Textbooks as State Switches to Technology-driven Classrooms

January 26, 2014

By Laurie Welch, The Times-News, Twin Falls, Idaho

Jan. 26 -- BURLEY -- Many students across the Magic Valley have tattered textbooks and not enough of them, as years of slashed school funding has left educators trying to balance budgets, advance technology and keep abreast of changing state standards. While the Twin Falls School District has been able to keep its books on schedule, smaller districts such as those in Cassia and Minidoka counties have not. One Burley High School teacher said some of her textbooks are from 2003 and ragged. "They are hanging on by a thread," said teacher Colleen Parkin . "It's a huge issue. I know it's about money, and the state said we were all going to get laptops and go digital. But that hasn't come through." Until 2010, the state earmarked funds for textbooks, said Melissa McGrath , spokeswoman for the state Department of Education . "The first year of the recession, that money still went out to districts," McGrath said. "The next year it was not available, and the line item was zeroed out." School districts now may pay for textbooks out of their discretionary funds; it's up to them how to spend that money. But as state funding dwindled, the Cassia County School District fell behind on buying textbooks, said Superintendent Gaylen Smyer . "It was a calculated decision. Since then we've been in a make-do mode," Smyer said. District officials also are grappling with the fact that books are outdated as soon as they're published, he said. "The question then becomes: Do we invest in printed materials or invest in bringing electronic books into the schools?" Districts receive broad-based technology funds that can be used to buy e-books, McGrath said. Some e-books come with a hefty pricetag though, Smyer said, and some have to be repurchased each year, though some free websites such as Khan Academy offer students online study aides. Nevertheless, in order to use technology in lieu of textbooks, the technology has to work. In much of rural Idaho , it doesn't. Parkin said computers at her school have technical difficulties all the time. She gets to school at 7:30 a.m. and turns on the laptop. At 8:10 a.m. , the computer still is booting up, which slashes precious time for students to get extra help before class. "Kids come in the morning and want to make up some work, and I can't get the computer going," Parkin said. The biggest complaints in the Cassia County district are the lack of computers and the fact that the bandwidth can't keep pace with the usage, said district spokeswoman Debbie Critchfield . Parkin said trying to check out a mobile lab of computers to use in her classroom is a joke because at least a half-dozen students will be booted off the Internet and can't participate. The Department of Education is working to install more wireless Internet access points in schools. But that takes time. The Idaho Education Network, which works closely with the state, has a proposal before the Legislature to expand broadband into middle and elementary schools statewide. When those projects are accomplished, McGrath said, then Internet access in rural schools should be addressed. "Internet access is an issue we've had for decades in Idaho ," she said. But as Idaho struggles to upgrade its technology, Parkin doesn't have the textbooks she needs to teach global history. Most teachers in the district have one set of textbooks per subject that stay in the classroom and are passed from student to student during the day. Some classes have no books. Ideally, Parkin said, each student would get a textbook. But those days are long gone, except in a few classes, such as math. Although many textbooks at Burley High are "very worn out and held together by duct tape," said senior Courtney Johnson , she has a math textbook she takes home. For other classes, Courtney said, she takes good notes to compensate for not having printed study materials at home. Sometimes it's also hard to find online information at school because Burley High's Internet filter blocks the needed sites, she said. "I think that we should only have books in classes we absolutely need them in," said Burley High student Devin Clark . "If you only use a book once or twice, then there is no point in having one." "We need textbooks, because if we don't have them, we don't learn as much as we need to," countered Tiffany Wilkinson , also of Burley High . "Some people at this school will say we don't need them. I say: They say that so they don't have to carry them around. The fact is, the books we have are falling apart and they won't last much longer." Not all districts in the Magic Valley have fallen so far behind in buying textbooks, and some districts have better Internet access. The Twin Falls School District bought math books five years ago for the secondary level, and officials now are looking at math books for the middle schools, said L.T. Erickson , the district's secondary program director. On the secondary level, each student gets a math book to take home and study, Erickson said. Social studies books were some of the oldest in the middle schools, and they were replaced last year, he said. The district also has a budget to rebind and replace textbooks each year, which keeps them in good repair. "Even though it's fairly costly, we try to have the resources the students need," said Erickson. Twin Falls schools also have multiple computer labs, and Internet access has not been a problem. But Karen Westover said she has 14-year-old teaching materials for her first-grade class at Oakley Elementary in Cassia County . "We used to have books the students could mark in and follow along," Westover said. "The books aren't being published anymore. It's frustrating." Students can look at the books in class, but they have no way to practice at home, she said. "I hate to see the kids getting shorted." Westover, the mother of a high school senior and an eighth-grader, said her children have never brought textbooks home. Students are expected to go online to complete projects and homework. She said her eighth-grader, who is a good student, cries every day in frustration because she does not have the resources she needs at school. The Cassia district is asking voters to approve an increase of $93,000 in its supplemental levy in March to adopt textbooks. "The district hopes to add money to that so we have $250,000 to use for new books. But that won't cover everything we need," Smyer said. He said it is unlikely that the district will ever revert to having a book for each student. "But basically, that depends on what the Legislature does," said Smyer. McGrath said the Department of Education's focus is on putting an electronic device in the hands of each student and teacher rather than restoring line-item funding for textbooks. The budget proposal presented to the Legislature last week would restore $35 million of a lost $82 million in discretionary funding to districts across the state. Smyer said Cassia has taken more than $5 million in state funding cuts since 2008. "We reduced salary and staff and expenses anyway we could," he said. The district also shifted junior high and high school sports to a pay-to-participate program -- so the district did not protect sports at the expense of textbooks. The Department of Education's proposed $1.36 billion budget, if approved, would return schools to the same funding level they had in 2008. But it won't restore funding to the higher 2009 level. "We understand the struggles and challenges districts have, especially with textbooks," McGrath said. The Minidoka County School District hasn't purchased textbooks for several years either, said Superintendent Sandra Miller . "Their condition is poor, and they're outdated," Miller said. She said the district is asking for an additional $750,000 on its existing $1.2 million supplemental levy this March. The money would go into the general fund and could be available for textbooks and other learning resources. McGrath said schools also are working to realign their textbooks to meet the state's new Common Core Standards. Because Minidoka is only beginning to implement Common Core, Miller said, district officials decided to wait before buying aligned textbooks. While the dust settles, Parkin said, teachers compensate by making copies of worksheets for students to take home, though schools now monitor and limit the number of copies teachers make. "It's got to be a priority to get textbooks back in the classrooms," said Parkin. Smyer said administrators at each school decide whether to limit copies to control costs. "It's really a challenge for teachers to get information for students to use outside of class," he said. For parents trying to help a struggling child at home, having books or printed study materials is essential. Students' homework assignments look different than they did years ago, Smyer said. Students used to take a book home, read a chapter and answer a quiz. "That's not the model anymore." Nor do teachers use one textbook to teach a class starting at chapter one. "Teachers have to have technology to supplement," Smyer said. Some classrooms are flipping lectures and homework. What was traditionally classwork might be performed at home, and then the student completes homework at school with the teacher's assistance. But some students don't have Internet access at home, Smyer said. They have to use school computers before and after classes and at lunchtime. Despite all the challenges, teachers work hard to accommodate and help their students, said Sheri Allred , mother of a Burley High student. For some teachers, that means reaching more often into their own pockets to pay for classroom supplies they feel their students need. Parkin said most teachers are very accommodating to students who don't have Internet access at home or who need extra computer time, offering to make time before and after school. Parkin said she spends $300 to $400 a year on classroom supplies. Miller estimates that 95 percent of teachers do that. "Teachers even ask kids to bring paper to school so they can make copies," Westover said. "And that's ridiculous." ___ (c)2014 The Times-News (Twin Falls, Idaho) Visit The Times-News (Twin Falls, Idaho) at Distributed by MCT Information Services

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Source: Times-News (Twin Falls, ID)

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