RICHMOND -- Chief Technology Officer Mary Phillips joined the West Contra Costa school district last summer with one of the most important mandates facing schools nationwide: Improve education by bringing students and teachers up to date in learning technology.
The program started this fall with the district investing $2.1 million in bond money from Measure E, passed by voters in 2012, to provide district teachers who don't have them with laptop computers, document cameras and LCD projectors for displaying video, images or computer data on a screen. The program will be completed in January.
The district also will be upgrading 12 schools that don't have wireless technology and is hoping to hire more technicians to keep the entire system running.
"All sites will be up to speed by April with high-speed bandwidth and high-speed wireless," Phillips said. "Getting the infrastructure upgraded is hugely important because everything else rests on it."
West Contra Costa eventually plans to eliminate textbooks by providing each student with a tablet computer to use in class and for homework. It also will help provide every student with an Internet connection if they don't have one so they can use the tablet at home.
Each tablet, adapted for educational rather than consumer uses, will cost between $350 and $600, depending on which brand is chosen, with "a lot of leasing options," Phillips said.
"All students will have equal access to technology, on or off campus, regardless of socio-economic status," she said.
Many questions need to be answered, including how to pay for providing thousands of homes with Internet connections and how to keep track of the thousands of tablet computers that will be distributed to students and replace the ones that are damaged or lost.
"My best solution is to have an insurance policy in place for breakage and replacement and to create a plan that solves this issue for the long run," she said.
Other goals include developing a system to help teachers evaluate each students' performance in a timely way to determine where they need help. This initiative is in alignment with the new Common Core Standards being introduced nationwide.
"Since we are using bond money to pay for hardware and infrastructure, we can use our Common Core money on professional development," Phillips said.
Although West Contra Costa is ahead of the curve in its classroom technology program, Phillips said she and other district officials are watching those on the cutting edge, such as Los Angeles Unified, to learn from their successes and failures.
"People have been questioning using money from long-term bonds to buy devices with shorter life spans," said school board member Todd Groves, a member of the district's technology committee. "We're going to have to think this out and get lots of data before making any comprehensive decisions."
Phillips' background goes back to the introduction of the personal computer, and her former positions have been in and around Silicon Valley.
She was a mathematics teacher with the Monterey Peninsula school district in the early '80s when she had the opportunity to use a set of Apple IIe computers in her classroom.
"I learned from my students who were building networks and pathways," Phillips, 58, said. "I began to understand the powerful impact that technology could have on student learning."
After becoming Monterey Peninsula's director of technology, she served in the same role for six years for the Santa Clara Unified School District in Silicon Valley, before moving on to West Contra Costa.