A T&L columnist shares ROI highlights from the past year.
Funding Technical Support
Ongoing technical support is often under-funded in district budgets. Most fall far short of the Consortium for School Networking's (CoSN) recommended ratio of one technician for every 50 to 70 computers, or one technician for every 500 computers in a closely managed networked environment.
Add to this the fact that teachers' needs for instructional support are as important for successful technology implementation as a reliable infrastructure, and many districts find that overall technical support costs are much higher than they budgeted for. Districts must recognize the need to focus more attention on repurposing existing funds to pay for technical support, reducing dependence on grants and other types of short-term funding. Here are five successful strategies being used by districts across the nation.
Technical support surcharges. Whenever a site or office makes a technology purchase, the district adds a surcharge to cover ongoing costs for infrastructure and instructional technical support.
Annual technical support fees. Instead of a surcharge at purchase, sites and offices are assessed a fee per computer each year. Fees are used to pay salaries for infrastructure and instructional technical support staff.
Site-based technical support. The district takes care of the network, but schools are responsible for hiring and paying for their own on-site day-to-day support. This often takes the form of stipends for existing employees.
Technical assistance from interns. Districts form partnerships with community colleges and technical schools to provide student internship opportunities. Interns, working under the supervision of paid district staff, handle troubleshooting, maintenance, and repairs, freeing district staff to offer more instructional technical support.
Technical support provided by students. Programs such as Generation YES, Students Working to Advance Technology, the Cisco Networking Academy, and California's TECH CORPS train middle and high school students to provide technical support at their schools. Proponents see this as a win-win situation; students gain marketable skills, and district staff can offer more instructional technical support.
Hardware and Software Standardization
Standardization does save money. Districts that standardize develop a list of specifications for hardware and software and then support just those items on the list. In most cases, network administrative rights are also restricted, limiting the number of people who have permission to install software or enable access to Web sites that are blocked. However, this practice can also result in unintended consequences. Before adopting a standardization policy, district officials must anticipate potential pitfalls and make provisions to ensure that teachers and students have access to the resources they need, when they need them.
- Districts can negotiate better pricing for hardware, software, and Web-based subscriptions through bulk purchases.
- Training costs for staff technicians decrease with limited types of hardware and software.
- Network security and integrity are easier to ensure with restricted access.
- Standardization squelches innovation when teachers are forbidden to purchase and pilot new technologies.
- Without administrative rights, teachers must wait for a technician to check out and install new software.
- Teacher and student access to a variety of instructionally sound Web-based tools and sites may be severely restricted by measures taken to keep the network secure.
Build Successful Collaborative Partnerships
Collaborative partnerships with local businesses and organizations benefit schools in a variety of ways, with financial contributions being just one possibility. These relationships often result in donations of goods, services, and other in-kind contributions made by collaborative members to the school. In turn, the school community can make these true partnerships by initiating service learning projects—community clean-up days, for example—that benefit these businesses and organizations. An existing collaborative also becomes a critical element in grant applications because it demonstrates strong community relationships, which invariably strengthens proposals.
Tips for building a successful collaborative:
- List potential partners.
- Identify specific ways partners can help the school and contributions the school can make in return (for example, through service-learning projects that benefit a partner).
- Present your plan and invite partners to join the collaborative.
- Host regular meetings to share information and resources.
- Publicize collaborative activities. You'll soon have potential partners approaching you.
Creative Strategies for Supporting Professional Development
Regular staff development that's meaningful and practical is a must for every school employee. Time and money are potential barriers, but there are strategies teachers and administrators can use to circumvent those challenges. Here are three suggestions for making the best use of time and reining in the costs for professional development.
Provide your own ongoing support. Once staff has attended training, they can help one another during the implementation process by using professional learning communities to plan and reflect, providing peer observations and feedback or reading and discussing related literature, all within the context of the regular school day. Opportunities for collaboration may be further enhanced using free online tools like wikis and blogs to foster anytime discussion. This approach may require restructuring staff meetings to accommodate planning and discussion time and funding for substitute teachers to support peer observations.
Change budgeting practices. Experts recommend allocating approximately 25 percent of a program's budget for professional development. Make this level of funding a given for new program funds and future grant applications, then leverage existing budgets by using multiple sources to split-fund current activities.
Take advantage of free resources. Some publishers offer professional development to their customers for little or no additional cost, particularly if the training is negotiated at the time of purchase. Staff can also participate in free, asynchronous online course offerings from providers such as Teacher2Teacher Digital Workshops or the Apple Learning Interchange.
Develop Accurate Budgets for Grant Proposals
Less experienced grant writers often build the proposal budget by taking the total amount of money available and spreading it across spending categories based upon best guesses, using the rationale that the grant coordinator will rework the budget once the proposal is funded. The problem with this approach is that writing budget revisions after the fact takes time, and some funders restrict the amount of money that can be reallocated, making it impossible to implement the proposal as written. Here are three tips for developing an accurate budget initially.
Make certain that proposed expenditures fall within grant guidelines. Funds provided through grants are often restricted or mandate specific expenditures.
Do your homework. If you're writing a proposal that includes salaries, don't forget about benefits. Factor in raises and increased benefit costs when writing a multiyear proposal. Get accurate price quotes for equipment and materials and be sure to include sales tax and shipping.
Include indirect costs. Many school districts charge anywhere from 4 to 10 percent off the top of any grant to defray the cost of processing purchase orders, generating budget reports, and more.
If indirect costs are prohibited by the funder, the district might refuse to manage the grant funds.
Evaluation is often the weakest link in a grant proposal. In fact, until fairly recently, evaluation was often an afterthought. However, increasingly limited funds and a growing concern about accountability have changed this. Most grantors now expect an accurate and thorough account of how the programs they fund are implemented and the resulting impact on student achievement. Here are six tips to keep in mind when developing an evaluation plan:
Review the request for proposals carefully. Elements of the evaluation plan such as mandatory reporting formats, assessment instruments, and timelines are often spelled out. These are requirements, not suggestions, and must be reflected in the evaluation plan.
Keep it simple. Focus on how you will measure and report on your major objectives. It's easy to fall into the trap of developing a plan that's so complex that it's nearly impossible to manage all the tasks listed.
Cross-reference all major objectives with the evaluation plan. You'd be surprised how easy it is to leave out one or more objectives. Even if the omission gets past proposal readers, sooner or later you'll be scrambling to shore up an incomplete plan.
Include strategies for formative and summative evaluation. Formative evaluation is used throughout program implementation to identify and correct problems as they occur. Summative evaluation is used at the end of a project to measure overall impact. Ongoing evaluation will strengthen your program and encourage achievement of major objectives.
When developing local assessment instruments, include time for piloting and modifying these tools. A trial run will help ensure that the tools are well written and elicit the information you need.
Remember that evaluation costs money. Whether you contract with an outside evaluator or conduct the evaluation in-house, there will be expenses. Data collection, analysis, and reporting all require resources, including staff time. Costs for evaluation typically run 8 to 10 percent of the grant award. Build these into the proposal budget.
Susan Brooks-Young is an educational consultant and writer.