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Students showcase tech innovations as federal funding ends

A pool of federal funds that has enabled schools and teachers to get help adopting new technologies is drying up at the end of the summer.

By the end of August, the Department of Education will no longer receive a federal grant called Title II-D, which helped schools pay for technology training centers in each borough, online curriculum, iPads, laptops, and other tools.

The U.S. Department of Education decided to eliminate Title II-D funds last year after the Obama administration reorganized its education budget to cut programs considered to be inefficient. The administration slashed the $100 million budget for education technology.

That means the city may have to find another way to pay for its technology centers and school gizmos without more funding, which amounted to $22.5 million over three years.

“I think people are working on seeing if there could be some sort of sustained support, but there’s nothing that’s been formally announced,” said Lisa Nielsen, who runs the Manhattan section of the department’s Educational Technology office.

The Education Technology office distributes the grants across five boroughs and helps train teachers at the borough’s technology center and in classrooms. The office also help schools use funding to buy items that encourage technological innovations in the classroom, such as iPads.

Nielsen and nearly 25 department employees are also expected to lose their positions because of the cuts. They will enter the Absent Teacher Reserve pool after August 30, when the funding ends.

“The relevance of us is that we are really able to personalize support to each school. I don’t believe that the schools will be able to take on using technology well without this sort of support,” added Nielsen. “When you’re the technology liaison or the media library specialist in your school, there’s usually just one of you so you feel alone. This was an opportunity to bring everyone together, to share ideas.”

The Department of Education also uses the grant money to host monthly meetings so that technology representatives could come together to share the online programs they use in their schools and receive advice on how to improve their technological practices.

“I didn’t really know much about what was going on. It was a real connection with other schools,” said Roy Silverstein, who is the technology specialist at P.S. 6.

“I learned a lot about what the other schools were doing. The iPad was new to me, I wanted to see what more I could do with it,” added Gordon Fish, who represents P.S. 48. “I’ve always learned at least four or five new things when I came here.”

Fish became involved with the Title II-D grant when he attended the meeting and was able to get new equipment for his school.

Fish and Silverstein joined dozens of students as schools presented their work at the Harlem Renaissance Training Center on Wednesday. Students were excited to share what they’ve learned this year.

The students said their projects — which ranged from using FlipCams to record poetry readings and building book clubs around iPads — helped them gain skills and learn from their classmates.

“I was kind of low in science but since I used Khan Academy, I became interested in it because of the videos,” said Daniel Pacheco, speaking about the non-profit organization that creates educational videos. “I really understood the concept of the atom even though I’m only supposed to learn that in a few years.”

The fifth-grader learned how to write and speak English better after using iPad apps and the Kindle. He immigrated to the country from Ecuador when he was eight and barely spoke English.

His teacher, Virginia Liz, said she doesn’t need to be convinced that kids can benefit from incorporating technology in the classroom.

“I’m in a perfect spot to experiment with the new wave of learning,” said Liz, who teaches at P.S. 8. “We decided that we wanted to use technology to go further when I’m not there.”

Her students share iPads, mini laptops, and Kindles to read, learn from using educational apps, and search definitions of words they don’t understand. Liz said she uses the online programs to track students’ progress and push students forward even when their pace is faster or slower than that of the rest of their class.

“We read a lot and we write a lot,” added Liz. “That’s what I think is innovative about this, the fact that we’re taking learning into our own hands.”

For the last three years, the Manhattan Office of Educational Technology has partnered with a non-profit organization to help train teachers how to use technological gadgets and incorporate online curriculum in their lessons.

The organization, Teaching Matters, provides the online curriculum and sends “technology coaches” to the schools to work closely with teachers.

“Teaching can be very isolationist,” said John Clemente, who works for Teaching Matters. “Unless you provide a rigorous structure for them to share ideas with each other and provide time for them to talk about those things, the best teachers will do it on their own and the teachers that need support might not get the support.”

Clemente said schools could still work with his organization if they find room in their budgets next year, but he predicted some drop-off.

“When we don’t have an onsite presence, we get a slightly lower percentage of participation,” added Clemente.

Educators said the cuts are coming at exactly the wrong time.

“I just don’t understand why, when we’re supposed to be getting more technically efficient, they’re cutting these programs,” said Fish, the tech specialist at P.S. 48. “They’re spending all this money on technology but they just don’t have enough training for it.”

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