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LA school officials say they're in the dark over computer inventories

Maya Sugarman/KPCC

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Los Angeles Unified School District officials said they don't have a complete accounting of computers at schools because they stopped counting during budget cuts - and a new survey meant to get an accurate accounting is incomplete, according to records, statements at public meetings and interviews.

With new computerized state standardized tests two months away, Superintendent John Deasy wants to rush order as many as 67,500 iPads to allow students to take the tests. The district released a new survey to KPCC on Monday showing only 38 percent of schools have necessary computers. But the survey only asked how many wired computers schools had - leaving out tens of thousands of laptops and tablets  - and about a quarter of the district's schools failed to respond to the survey.

For instance, according to the district's new survey, the Diego Rivera Learning Complex in South Los Angeles has thousands of students but no wired computers. What the survey leaves out is that every student at the school received a wireless iPad earlier this year.

District administration put together the survey after school board members repeatedly asked for a computer inventory and report on testing readiness.

This spring marks two firsts for California standardized testing: the exams will be given on computers and based on new learning standards called the Common Core.

At an L.A. Unified school board meeting earlier this month, board president Richard Vladovic assured school principals he understood their misgivings, having once been a principal himself.

"The logistical nightmare I would be having during testing period would not only skew results, but drive me - as a site administrator - crazy," Vladovic said, as he lobbied the board to let the superintendent buy all the testing tablets he deemed necessary. 

"I believe you are going to be prudent - that you are not going to throw away our money," Vladovic said.

The board essentially agreed to issue Deasy a blank check, allowing him to purchase as many tablets as he found necessary for testing - and thousands more to expand the one-to-one iPad program to 38 additional schools this year. With that increase, the project will have been rolled out to 85 of the district's 800 schools.

Despite months of questions and concerns by some board members, parents and educators, Deasy has not retrenched on his desire to provide all students an iPad.

“I’m sick and tired of hearing that because of the zip code you live in you could possibly have something less," Daisy said when the program began last fall. "That’s not what this administration is about.”

Counting Computers

But Steve English, a member of the district's Bond Oversight Committee, has repeatedly complained the district's projected iPad needs do not take into consideration the tens of thousands of devices schools already own.

Granada Hills Charter Academy, for instance, has 2,000 computers for its roughly 4,000 students. Yet none of its inventory showed up on the districts latest survey; Granada Hills didn’t respond.

Junior Nicole Valderas said the school has been snapping up computers for specialized classes - such as video production - since she started in 2011.

"We have a lot of laptop carts," Valderas said. "We use it for projects and research. It's becoming a thing."

Granada Hills senior Pranathi Rao said she uses laptops every day in her computer science classes.

"I use it for business statistics," junior Derek De Leon chimed in as the three gathered outside the campus on a warm, late January afternoon. "We use Excel programs and Word documents on daily basis."

L.A. Unified's head of data and accountability, Cynthia Lim, said taking computers away from classes like these for testing disrupts the ongoing instruction. 

But only juniors are tested at the high school level. At Granada Hills, that means 1,000 students would need a few hours to sit for an exam at some point during a six week testing period. A calculator provided the test manufacturer Smarter Balance estimates Granada Hills testing could be completed with fewer than 150 computers used only 2 hours day.

Yet the district estimates the school will need 450 iPads to hold exams.

English has scrutinized fragmented computers inventories from several schools, including Granada Hills, and urged the school board earlier this month not to waste its money buying too many iPads.

"There are thousands and thousands of devices out there in the district right now," English said, estimating the real number of need is 38,535 , about half of the number officials have requested.

English declined to comment for this story, but reported to the school board repeated instances of the district overestimating need.

English pointed out that Ivanhoe Elementary is slated to get iPads for testing, but all 4th and 5th grade students already have laptops. Huntington Park High recently scored 1,000 new tablets, but accounted for none on the district's most recent survey.

Without accurate inventory, L.A. Unified may be overlooking schools were the need for more technology is urgent.

"Harbor City Elementary has only one computer lab that services 28 students," the school's staff reported on the testing readiness survey.  "We do not have the capacity for small group testing or testing students with testing accommodations."

But district estimates don't account for such gaps: testing iPad requests are loosely dictated by the number of students rather than the number of computers already on campuses.

District officials did exclude schools that were part of the iPad pilot from getting extra tablets for testing. But, they didn't exclude the seven high schools scheduled to get laptops for all students from getting extra iPads.

"It does impact the integrity of the entire program," English said at January's board meeting, speaking the district's sputtering initiative to equip every student with an iPad. "The initiative is being closely watched."

English also reported the district is asking for test-taking tablets at schools were kids don't take standardized tests - like Primary Centers, which serve only kindergarten through second grade, and one school that only offers a-la-carte online courses for students attending other schools.

"When the district made its estimate that it needed 67,500, it did not take any of those devices into account for the very good reason that the district does not at this moment have a count of how many devices are out there," English told school board members.

L.A. Unified did not provide inventory records and did not respond to requests for an interview, but officials have discussed the issue publicly in school board meetings.

They said L.A. Unified doesn't have an inventory of computers because after the recession budget cuts, they couldn't afford to take inventory. The district's annual budget is over $6 billion.

The sticker price for Deasy's request of 67,5000 iPads is over $30 million. That doesn't include the staffing and network upgrades needed to establish the new fleet.

District officials said they are negotiating an iPad contract this week, but won't disclose the number of devices they are requesting.

"We’re still negotiating everything," said Shannon Haber, a district spokeswoman, in an email.

Providing all students and teachers with an iPad has been estimated to cost the district well over a billion dollars, $11.2 million of which is set to come out of general funds next year.

Lost Connection

New Smarter Balanced state tests are hosted on the web. L.A. Unified's readiness survey reports 11 percent of schools have infrastructure concerns, including issues with reliable internet connection.

“Connectivity of wireless prevents us from using wireless computers for testing,” Walter Reed Middle School in North Hollywood reported in the survey. Reed is scheduled to get 227 iPads - but those devices would also need good connections to administer the test.

“Some computers are slower than others they do not have equal bandwidth,” said staff at Bellingham Elementary, also located in North Hollywood.

“Some computers would not load the assessment (it kept spooling),” commented administrators at Garavanza Elementary in Highland Park, adding that the internet speed is slow.

L.A. Unified work orders for upgrading school networks show the problem is more widespread than the January survey indicates.

A report shows only 208 of the districts approximately 800 campuses are wifi ready, Another 486 are scheduled for modernizations before the end of 2014, averaging $736,000 in construction costs per school.

Only 59 more school sites will be fully wifi ready in time for tests in April. 

The district is planning to spend over $500 million to pull wire, buy serves and connect antiquated schools to a data grid over the course of 2014.