La Cañada school officials ponder drawbacks of tech in the classroom, lunchroom

In the four years since La Cañada Unified implemented its last technology plan, educators and school officials have made great strides in introducing technology into the classroom.

During the 2013-14 school year, nearly 52% of the district’s teachers reported never using technology for in-class instruction, and the only students who came to school with a laptop did so of their own volition.

By comparison, district figures show about 1,350 students — nearly one-third of LCUSD’s total enrollment — were equipped with their own Google Chromebooks last school year. This year, the number exceeds 2,000 students.

Meanwhile, 87.5% of elementary school teachers and 72.6% of high school teachers reported in 2016-17 using technology in the classroom twice a week or more, with many reporting daily use in a district tech survey.

The change has been so rapid, some parents are beginning to worry about the distraction and social isolation associated with constant computer use creeping into the school day, both during class and in free periods like lunch.

Chief Technology Officer Jamie Lewsadder told school board members in a meeting Tuesday that parents have expressed concerns about students using cellphones during class and spending lunch periods playing online games or with heads buried in their laptops, instead of socializing with peers.

Some suggested banning cellphones altogether during class hours or prohibiting students from using devices during lunch periods. But such rigid boundaries don’t make sense in an age when technology use is so prevalent, Lewsadder said.

“It’s not just our schools, it’s really society. Everywhere you go, you see people sitting in restaurants on cellphones rather than talking to each other,” Lewsadder said during a presentation on student technology experiences. “We need to define what we think the issue is.”

She suggested the district gauge opinions in a series of focus-group talks with parents, students and teachers, and create a list of specific concerns and potential solutions to include as goals and guiding principles in the next iteration of the district’s technology plan.

Board President Dan Jeffries said parents have brought the matter to him, but that a solution is not so simple.

“[They] were talking about should we totally ban electronics, block WiFi, shut down cell service,” he said. “Really the problem is, what are we trying to solve?”

District delivers financial forecast

Mark Evans, assistant superintendent of business and administrative services, and fiscal services director Gretchen Bergstrom gave the school board a rough sketch of what the district’s budget might look like through 2020, presenting a first interim report for 2017-18.

The state mandates school districts to certify every October and January their ability to meet all financial obligations for that fiscal year and for the next two fiscal years. Evans and Bergstrom told the board while enrollment saw a slight uptick this school year of about 20 students — amounting to an additional $192,000 in state revenue — the assumption going forward is the rate will stagnate.

Although state one-time dollars that have in the past meant higher revenue are not anticipated in future fiscal years, the district’s contribution to employee pensions will continue to increase with cost-of-living adjustment increases of 2.15% in 2018-19 and 2.35% the following year expected to help mitigate those increases.

“There will be continual pressures on the budget once the growth rate slows down,” Evans said.

Board Member Ellen Multari said despite seemingly rosy statewide forecasts about education funding, some districts continually face challenges from a dearth of state funding paired with skyrocketing pension contribution mandates.

“It’s our reality, and it’s going to be our reality for the foreseeable future,” she said.

The first interim report is expected to come back to the board for approval next month before a Dec. 15 submission deadline.

In other news, the board heard a report from Lindi Dreibelbis, the district’s director of assessment, explaining the local indicators LCUSD has chosen to assess progress in the new California School Dashboard, the matrix replacing the former Academic Performance Index. In addition to assigned statewide indicators, which consider absenteeism, graduation and suspension rates, La Cañada Unified selected school conditions, implementation of state academic standards, parent engagement and school climate as indicators to help measure district progress going forward.

The school board also examined its policy regarding credit for summer course work, which stipulates students may not take graduation requirement English courses for acceleration at outside institutions. While Supt. Wendy Sinnette explained there is no way to ensure outside classes meet Common Core standards and the district’s writing requirement, LCUSD parent Belinda Randolph called the policy unfair for creating special criteria for a single subject.

sara.cardine@latimes.com

Twitter: @SaraCardine

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