Technology gap clouds Aiken school planning

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As the Aiken County School Board and school administrators create a blueprint for facility needs, discussions often come back to how a school can serve program and technology needs 20 years from now.

With more than half of the district's 41 facilities built 40 to 60 years ago, visions of a future of science labs and wireless technology can be clouded by scenes of cramped classrooms and a lack of outlets for more classroom computers.

Pat O'Neill, the director of the school system's Career and Technology Center, said educators and architects weren't thinking of such upgrades when the schools were built in the 1950s and earlier. Mr. O'Neill's facility was one of six toured by school board Chairwoman Christine Harkins and the board last week as they looked at critical needs and facility limitations.

"The only thing holding us back is the money," Mr. O'Neill said.

Although the technology center, built in 1966, is one of the newest on the critical needs list, Mr. O'Neill said simple changes, such as more computers and outlets, could greatly increase students' productivity.

"Technology was once a luxury, and now it's a necessity," he said.

"In virtual machining, students take a piece and cut it by hand instead of learning the systems that can cut it by computer," he said. "It would save time and money."

Mr. O'Neill said the facility also lacks an auditorium for assemblies that would benefit all of his students in the Professionalism 101 courses, which teach skills such as interviewing. But the school lacks the means to add a system to broadcast to all the classrooms, too.

School planner Bill Day of KBD Planning Group Inc. said school boards often use a construction firm for analysis. But those firms don't take instructional programs into consideration.

"Once you answer that question, 'Do the buildings support our current teaching and learning styles and do they support current and future technology?' then you can decide how to maximize the facilities you already have and how they will operate in the future," he said.

Mr. Day, who is a contributor to American School & University magazine, said schools are moving toward wireless technology. "Desktop computers are out; even laptops are out. Cell phones are going to have the capabilities that computers have today, and schools will buy software to load on phones instead of hardware for students," he said.

Deputy Superintendent David Caver said classrooms need to be designed to go from a small group setting to a large group but that they also need to be wired for future technology.

The district's oldest school, Leavelle McCampbell, was built in 1920. Dr. Harkins said it has historic significance that makes it worth saving, but it lacks the technology upgrades that many middle schools in the state have. Even things such as hot water in the restrooms and energy-efficient windows and HVAC units are missing.

"When you visit some of the newer schools and see some of the innovation that our kids don't even have an opportunity to use, our kids are probably thinking, 'Is this the best they can offer?' " she said. "In my almost eight years on the board, I've toured many schools, but it's sad to see that some of the buildings have deteriorated even more over the last few years."

School board members will use their assessments of last week's visits during a brainstorming session Jan. 5 to continue their work on the facility needs plan. The meeting begins at 7 p.m.

Reach Julia Sellers at (706) 823-3424 or julia.sellers@augustachronicle.com.

IN A PERFECT WORLD

Aiken leaders and school planners list essentials for an ideal school.

- Computers

- Science Labs

- Dimmers for classroom lights

- Options for meeting in small and large groups in a classroom

- SMARTboard

- Telephone

- Distance learning capabilities

- Microphone for teacher

- Ceiling-mounted projector

Source: Aiken County school board members, Bill Day with KBD Planning Group Inc.

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