Tom Atkinson focuses on the big picture at town schools

Photo by Daniel Jackovino
Tom Atkinson, the Bloomfield director of systems and information technology, during a recent interview in the conference room of the high school.

BLOOMFIELD, NJ — Although Bloomfield teachers strive to maintain an educational consistency at each grade level throughout the district, Tom Atkinson, the Bloomfield director of systems and information technology, said questions about student diversity and technology will need to be answered.
In an interview Friday, Sept. 14, at Bloomfield High School, Atkinson said he looks at five criteria to determine what makes a school unique: active student enrollment; percentage of students eligible for free and reduced lunch; minority students; percentage of special-education students; and the PARCC performances for grades 3 to 6 for the school year 2016-17.

He said Watsessing and Oakview had the fewest students, with 320 and 369, respectively, as of Sept. 14, while Demarest had 508 and Fairview had 536. Regardless of the enrollment, Atkinson said every classroom needs more smart boards and computers. But software requirements may differ from school to school.
“For the most part, all schools have been treated identically,” he said.

Demarest, Carteret and Berkeley elementary schools are continuing their use of a software program called “Study Island” to determine if its subscription should continue.

The program is adaptive. The student is given a question. If they get it right, they advance. If they get it wrong, they go back a step to review the material.
“If you do well, you’ll get a question that is new,” he said.

Atkinson said one of the best software programs is “Newslea.” It presents news articles at the reading level of the student and is used from grade three to 11.
“If a student reads better, they will read at a higher level,” he said. “Now you can have a current-events discussion and all the children can be involved. You couldn’t have this without a computer.”

Because students who are English Language Learners require more help in the software than students who are native speakers, Atkinson said the question to be addressed would be what percentages of free and reduced lunch students would necessitate special software in the same way there is special software for English Language Arts.

At the Bloomfield Middle School, he said “Future Ready School Certification,” a process to ensure that each school is ready to educate children in the 21st century, is being undertaken. The high school will be undertaking the certification next year.

“It asks if you are providing enough training to teachers and allow students to personalize learning,” he said. “Hopefully, this will get to the elementary schools by the 2020-21 school year. It involves a lot of planning.”

Regarding the percentage of minority students, and Atkinson said a minority student is defined as any student who is non-white.
“Neighborhood schools, their profiles, are so different that maybe there are special needs for software or programs,” he said. “Those questions haven’t been asked or answered yet. The district is just coming up to ask those questions because the Chromebooks give every student the opportunity to run programs and do work. The program may have to be different depending on the neighborhood school.”

Regarding the percentage of special-education children enrolled, Atkinson said all Bloomfield schools have a percentage of 10 to 12 percent.
“Special education has its own software and budget,” he said. Special education children receive technology based on their needs. They all have Individual Education Plans.”

Considering the results of the 2016-17 PARCC tests among Bloomfield third- to sixth-graders, Atkinson said compared to state results, overall the township children did well, but there are differences between the school results.

“The question is how will we differentiate and make all children learn,” he said. “How differently we should treat the schools? Now is the time to ask those questions.”
Atkinson believes that Chromebooks, which are making their way down to the sixth-grade level in Bloomfield, are a great tool for answering questions about educating children.