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Q&A;: Programming Burbank Unified 2.0

When Burbank Unified’s network supervisor announced his departure earlier this year, school board members decided to take the position in a new direction. They re-penned the job description to include a significant instructional component, and hired 31-year-old Charles Poovakan, well known in tech education circles for pushing the envelope.

Poovakan, the new director of information technology and educational support services, said that his love of computers started at the age of 5, when his parents brought home an 8-megahertz word processor.

He went on to earn a degree in computer science at Cal Poly Pomona, and then launched into a career that has taken him through the Fullerton Joint Union High School, El Monte City, Beverly Hills and Ocean View school districts.

Now embarking on his first school year in Burbank, Poovakan is looking to transform the district into a model in technology efficiency. He recently sat down with the Burbank Leader to share his ideas.


Question: Your professional skills are highly valuable, why do you choose to employ them within the education field?

Answer: When I was in high school, we had computer programming classes, but that is all they had. They didn’t really have much for someone like me back then, and I really kind of felt like it just wasn’t good enough. When I went to computer programming classes, I easily got the As… and I wished there was really more. And when I came out of [school] I knew I wanted to somehow help people, but at the same time I was into computers. There are very few places you can do that. One of them is school districts... I am not cut out to be a teacher. It’s just not me. So the next closest thing would be to work behind the scene in technology.

Q: Where is Burbank Unified falling short on the technology front?

A: It is just mainly antiquated. I think part of the problem with a school district like Burbank, or even La Cañada, is that, as weird as it sounds, the lesser privileged schools get more resources. The more kids you have on free and reduced lunch, the more funding you get. And for districts like Burbank and La Cañada… It is harder to get funding, you have to kind of be a little more creative. I think that is part of the reason why you might see some of the school districts like El Monte or Ocean View, they have a lot of nice equipment because they are eligible for that funding.


Q: So how do you allocate resources in a district that is not receiving federal or state dollars for much needed upgrades?

A: You basically have to try and stretch it out as much as possible. You have to look for parents, sometimes parents can be a resource. When I worked for Beverly Hills [School District] there was a parent group that donated a whole lab… With Burbank, we do have TV studios and the entertainment industry. I know that some of the staff has been able to get donations. I am currently working with the military. I am working on getting 100 computers, hopefully within the next two months. The military goes through their computers quick, I guess because they need state-of-the-art equipment. They only use their computers for about two years, and then they upgrade. Some of our computers that we have now are eight to 10 years old. So a two-year-old computer is better than an eight- to 10-year-old computer.

Q: What are some realistic, financially conscious changes you hope to implement in the next 18 months?

A: We currently pay about $1,000 for a brand-new computer. I am looking to reduce that by half, by possible looking into buying refurbished computers because you can get a computer that is two years old for half the price. When you do a long-term calculation, a two-year computer isn’t bad… When you cut it down from $1,000 to $500 per computer, that is a lot of money to save. That is the first step. Right now we still have a lot of CRT monitors out there. Hopefully with donations I am looking to replace those with LCDs. The main reason is those CRTs really draw a lot of power. I have measured it. It takes three to four times more power than an LCD.

Q: What other innovations do you hope to bring to the district?

A: [In another district] there were kids from the high school that created an iPhone app and an Android app so that you can get news feeds from the school. Can you imagine if the tech savvy parents knew that? Now they can just get the news feed so they don’t have to check their emails all the time. I might actually look into doing that, maybe contact the high schools to see if there are any very bright programming students that might want to take that on.

Q: There is a debate within education circles about how much technology contributes to student learning, with naysayers arguing that technology isn’t a golden ticket to high test scores. What are your thoughts on the matter?

A: I think it is partially true. Technology is only as good as the user who uses it. So if we buy an interactive white board with a projector and the whole software, and all they are doing is Power Point, we didn’t need an interactive white board to begin with... There are technologies out there that would allow [students] to come up and manipulate geometry shapes or things such as that and be more engaged, and work with technology. I think that engagement is what will get some kids to be more successful.