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Arbor Heights Elementary: Deliver us from old computers

Teachers at Arbor Heights surf the web. Credit: Arbor Heights Elementary

Built in 1948, Arbor Heights Elementary School does not hide its age. Lines that were drawn on the asphalt for schoolyard games have long since faded and warped into a wrinkled maze of roots and weeds. Despite aging facilities and a meager budget, the school has been able to maintain several computers to aid students. Until it was robbed. Twice.

For a school that has struggled for years to bridge the digital divide, the thefts are an insult and a tragedy. A new line of iMacs arrived early last spring to replace the old computers, all nearly a decade old. After two burglaries within three months, eight to nine computers are still missing from the school with no budget to replace them.

"It just had to be terribly disheartening, disruptive and discouraging for the students and the staff to lose the machines," says Mark Ahlness, a former teacher at Arbor Heights. "Trying to understand why that would happen… It's hard to explain to little kids."

As children rush into school in the morning, they don't mind the chipped paint or the crumbling concrete. The mismatched jumble of wires running in, around and out of classrooms seems to go unnoticed by young eyes. However, the sleek, silver iMacs that sat in the corner of the classroom are gone. All that is left: an amputated mess of wires and cables.

In time, the stolen computers were replaced, but not with brand new models. The old, dusty machines that were removed after the upgrade, are back to stay.

"It was heartbreaking" says Tammy Wooley, a technology specialist at the school. The PTA hired Wooley three years ago when the parents and staff had trouble receiving timely repairs. The decade-old machines distributed to the school by the district required constant maintenance and time that teachers couldn't afford.

"The computers would go up and go down, the sound wouldn't work, video card would be busted, the drive wouldn't work. It was painful," she says. "I spent all my time just making sure the machines were working — cannibalizing some machines to rebuild other machines."

Without appropriate resources, students at Arbor Heights could also be at a disadvantage when they move on to middle school. Most Arbor Heights graduates attend David T. Denny International School, where they have interactive whiteboards. Students from Arbor Heights will be seeing and working with these electronic whiteboards for the first time.

Arbor Heights’ buildings – like its computers — are a pastiche of parts, systems and efforts. Useable, but not sensible.

Unseemly steel trim and bolts attach a sprawl of portable classrooms to the original school building. Because of this, the school has nearly 30 doors to the outside; a quirk of the building that might have cost them several of their new computers.

Wires run everywhere. When staff and parent volunteers pooled their efforts to install computers at the school, the building had to be retrofitted for the homespun network. Later, the district came and installed a new network on top of the old one.

"We are a middle-class school and our parents are doing the very best they can to try and support the school," says Principal Christy Collins. "They want to come in and paint the walls to try and make the school look good, but it's a bandage.”

The mix of old and new is a frequent frustration for the staff. Inconsistent heating throughout the building causes students in some classrooms to huddle in full-winter clothing, while others swelter. A lack of outlets forced one teacher to string all classroom devices into a single surge strip. Loops and inconsistencies in the network cause online curriculum to crash, disrupting classroom learning.

Ironically, Arbor Heights Elementary was one of the first elementary schools in the world to have a website, built by Ahlness in 1994. He believes that technology is important in creating a comfortable learning environment.

"They would come to school and before these nice new iMacs, most of the classrooms had really crummy ones," he remembers. "It was kind of like it wasn't home. They spent about six hours of the day in a place that didn't have computers like they did at home. It was weird."

In addition to creating a familiar environment, computers added another dimension to a child's learning: "The writing can take a different form. Because when you're writing online and you're writing with hyperlinks, it's more like you're writing in 3-D versus linear paper and pencil," he says.

Students were also motivated to write because of the audience they could reach. "We could connect with other bloggers in New York State or in Australia, for instance. It really opened up their worlds and broke down the walls in the classroom."

Wooley says children will clamor to use the few computers distributed to each classroom.  There’s just one caveat: "As long as it’s not frustrating" she says. "If the computers are working properly and they are able to access the online resources quickly and easily. If the curriculum is stable, then they love playing with these online sites."

Right now, stability seems like a rare luxury. Between the cracks in the concrete and school's budget, teachers and parents are often forced to find temporary solutions to bandage deeper problems.

That could all change though if the school levy tax passes on Tuesday. Some of the money is slated to build a new school at Arbor Heights. A new building would mean stable networks, better wiring and less workarounds. More importantly, a new school would provide a secure environment to house technology that directly benefits students.

If the levy doesn’t pass, teachers, staff and parents will be seeking even more bandages, and crutches, to keep the school working.

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