District updates tech for new year

WEST ORANGE, NJ — West Orange School District Director of Technology Fil Santiago gave the West Orange Board of Education an update on all of the new technology and ongoing projects his department has been working on over the summer at the Aug. 26 BOE meeting, highlighting new equipment that has been purchased for the district’s schools and how Chromebooks will be used in the future. The laptops were scheduled to begin to be handed out to students the next day at West Orange High School freshman orientation.

According to Santiago, one change the district made was tripling the bandwidth of the district’s internet to account for increased activity in the classrooms and what students are using the computers for. Increased video usage takes up more storage, so the technology department had to account for increased bandwidth. This, in addition to a new backup firewall, was part of this year’s technology budget.

“That firewall pretty much monitors everything,” Santiago said at the meeting. “Traffic going in and out, malicious content going through, and we didn’t have a backup. Part of the budget was to have a firewall available, so now we have redundancy. If that were to go down, we have a backup to switch over to.”

In addition to the new firewall, Santiago said the computer servers were upgraded over the summer. The district’s main servers are at West Orange High School, with a backup at Liberty Middle School. A second backup is updated every month on hard drives and kept in a bank, so student records and other information stored on the servers can always be found.

After seeing a high number of broken Chromebooks at the middle school level over the past several years, Santiago said that only high school students will continue to take the laptops home with them every day.

“The plan is to go back to the original idea, which is to have students take Chromebooks home only at the high school level and bring carts to the classes in grades six, seven and eight,” he said. “It works really well in those environments because we have evidence that in grades K through five, there’s minimal breakage.”

For students who don’t have access to a computer at home, there will be a set of loaner laptops available to check out as if it were a library book. They will be able to take the Chromebook home for a few weeks at a time if they need to, but not all students will be taking the computers home every day.

At the high school level, eventually Santiago wants to have students keep the Chromebooks with them all the time.

“We’re not going to be collecting Chromebooks anymore,” he said. “The goal is to have the students throughout the year just keep them. Over the summer if they want to work on them they can.”

Tech support will be available in the school buildings next summer, the first time the high school students will have the computers after school ends in June. If a problem arises with their Chromebook, they can bring it in to get it fixed.

About 2,100 new Chromebooks were purchased with this year’s budget. Santiago said all of them will be the same model so that the chargers and power supply will match, something that created an issue in the past. Used laptop carts were also purchased at a discounted price from the Chatham School District to store the middle school Chromebooks. Santiago got the carts for $50 to $100 per unit, when they would usually cost around $1,500, he said.

“The objective here is to start looking for products that are used that we can use to save money long term,” he said.

New desktop computers were purchased for several computer labs as well, and the ones that are being replaced are almost a decade old. According to Santiago, the desktop computers will be shifted around from classrooms to be put in other labs to avoid buying all new desktops.

“We have about 800 computers that are literally obsolete,” he said. “They’re nine to 10 years old. That’s atypical to have inventory that old. We’ve made it work, but it comes at a cost.”

Certain faculty members — those with the oldest technology at Edison Middle School and new faculty — will also be getting new laptops.

“The remainder of laptops that we have, we’re going to try to give them to teachers who’d like to have them in lieu of those desktops they have in place,” Santiago said. “I think we have to move towards having laptops for teachers and having mobility and having the ability to quickly connect anywhere and anytime.”

BOE member Mark Robertson asked what the long-term plan would be for student and faculty laptops, wondering at the meeting if Chromebooks are sustainable. Santiago replied that because technology changes so fast, it’s hard to answer that question.

“Right now I think they are the solution from a cost-effectiveness perspective,” he said. “If we got a Mac for everybody we’d be bankrupt. If a Chromebook averages about four years, which is ideal, you’re looking at about $50 a year per student.”

There are also savings in anti-virus software, Santiago added, because Google automatically updates the laptops. The district is not paying for virus protection.

Santiago said the district’s goal is to hopefully cut down on the amount of paper they are using on a daily basis, and using computers can do that. But prints and copies still need to be made, so that technology is being updated this year as well. Network printers will be installed and phased in beginning with the central office staff, which will allow students and staff to print from any printer in the building.

“It’s a softer application that allows me to print from anywhere on the network,” Santiago said. “If I wanted to, I could go to any printer, put in the code, swipe my card and it’ll come out right away. The best thing about this is we’re able to track every user and the amount of printing that’s done. It gives really good data long term about how much paper is being used by a school. Perhaps students, in the future, can help us out. Here’s the data, how can you help reduce cost by building? That might drive some conversation in a math class and that might be important.”

Another change on the horizon is the redesign of the district website, for which Santiago said an RFP went out this summer.

“We’ll be meeting in September with the committee to review what the vendors have to provide,” he said. “It will have the same specs, the same capabilities. We’ll have a conversation about the current site, what they’re capable of doing and how to move forward once we have the committee set up.”

BOE member Sandra Mordecai also brought up creating Wi-Fi hotspots around town for students who don’t have access to the internet at home. Santiago said he wouldn’t have a big say in creating them, but it’s something to look into for the future.

“We’re up to 46 percent of our kids on free and reduced lunch district wide, and in the case of Washington, who’s at 85 percent, and Hazel at 70 percent, you could make the assumption that if someone is on free or reduced lunch, while they may have a computer at home, they may not have a hotspot,” Mordecai said.