Taking Tech by the Horns

The pre-K–12 Canutillo Independent School District in Texas adjoins the El Paso Independent School District and is minutes from the Rio Grande. With an annual growth rate of 6 percent, it’s one of the state’s fastest growing districts. All its 5,430 students qualify for free or reduced lunch, and 38 percent are limited English speakers. Martha Veale, executive director of school resources, talks about how the district manages.

Q: What are Canutillo’s tech challenges?

A:The biggest challenge for rural school districts is providing and facilitating the technology needs of students of all grade levels because of the limited funding. That’s the issue—equitable funding. We just don’t have the funds to do what we would like, such as providing our students with more mobile computer access. When you’re 100 percent free and reduced lunch, parents don’t have the extra money for computers at home. Having enough library resources—including books and database access—is another issue.

Q: How are you using IT to overcome those hurdles?

A:We have the libraries open late for our students and former students. They’re able to get Internet access in the evenings and on Saturdays. There’s no transportation—no city buses. That’s one reason school library resources are so important. In rural districts, the school library might be the only place where kids can work at night

The other thing that we're starting this year is a district digital library. We’ve purchased probably 400 electronic books. We’re going to hand out older laptops, or laptops purchased specifically for students to take home, or mini-PCs, which allow students to read e-books. Maybe we have a middle school student who wants to read George Orwell’s 1984, and there’s only one copy in the high school library. And so we have two additional copies in e-book format. For those very few who have Internet access at home, they also have access to the district’s e-books.

Q: What are you doing that’s different from other rural districts?

A: We’re not doing anything different when it comes to opening our libraries late, but I don’t think many other people are using these digital libraries.

I do believe that we make an extra effort to have computer classes for our parents. We work on a lot of parental involvement with technology so that they can use computers, do their resumes, and brush up or learn new computer skills.

Q: Are you using technology to overcome geographical barriers?

A: Yes, because every student and parent in our school district, even if they’re in Kindergarten, has an e-mail address. We provide them with an e-mail account at no charge as long as they sign our acceptable use agreement.

All our campuses have the capability of doing distance education. They can do it intra-district from campus to campus. We did a cooperative science project with high school and elementary classes on water cleanliness, a big issue here.

And high school students can take courses online through the community college and get dual credits.

Q: Are you leveraging IT to help with English as a Second Language instruction?

A: Very much so. We use a number of programs. One is Rosetta Stone language learning software. We use bilingual software when available in other areas besides English instruction, too. We did buy some e-books in Spanish. We’re trying.

Q: What are your technology goals?

A: We have a very good student-to-computer ratio right now. Every classroom has no fewer than four student computers and one teacher computer. They’re new machines that we lease from Dell. That’s a done deal. The next step, which we’ll do within the next two years, is to maintain the three-year refresh lease with Dell.

The district has committed to make it standard for every classroom to have four student computers, one teacher computer, two printers, and a ceiling-mounted digital projector and whiteboard. I would say that the majority of classrooms will have that within two years.

Portability is the issue right now. The demographics of our district are key—students have no access to computers at home and no public transportation.

Sheila Riley is a San Francisco–based freelancer who also writes for EE Times and Investor’s Business Daily.