District spends major money to maintain PDL device program

CONWAY, SC (WBTW) – Officials say more than 30,000 students in Horry County will use a personalized digital learning device in the classroom this school year.

The initiative has been a major investment for Horry County Schools, as it now enters its fourth year. As more students get access to laptops and tablets, News13 wanted to know how much it has cost to repair damaged devices over the past year and whether the initiative is making a difference.

Horry County Schools Chairman Joe DeFeo questioned whether the devices were making a difference during a technology committee meeting on March 7, 2016.

Meeting minutes stated: “Mr. DeFeo also asked if the Board would ever get data for how the devices were impacting student achievement. He acknowledged the change in state testing in each of the last three years was problematic in getting data.” News13 reached out to DeFeo to see if his opinion has changed, but he did not want to answer our questions on camera.

Parents like Lauren Morris, whose son attends Myrtle Beach Middle School, says she’s noticed a difference in how he processes information and adapts to learning in the classroom.

“Your writing skills are maybe a little different. How he edits is different – like how he edits a paper because it’s done typed out,” she explained. “It’s kind of that cut-and-paste mentality. It’s kind of an interesting approach.”

“I can comprehend a lot faster and a lot easier – which means I can get a lot better grades,” he son, Liam, said.

Horry County Schools Digital Communications Coordinator Ashley Gasperson says part of the initiative’s goal is to increase student performance and close achievement gaps.

“I think the successes we have in our district are evident in the work the students do, the projects they do [and] the ability when they leave us and go to college,” she explained. “Most people that we really work with enjoys the opportunity and thinks it really helps push the instruction curriculum forward. It really levels the playing field.”

The district conducted a focus group that targeted students, teachers, district employees and parents in 2016 at the middle school level. Students said the PDL devices let them work at their own pace, while teachers favored student engagement with apps. Principals said digital content also made it easier to see trends and patterns in their schools.

However, a major area of improvement identified in the survey results was device breakage and repair.

“It’s different things from screens – cracked or shattered screens – to the corners being broken off or damage to the keyboards,” Gasperson said.

We pulled the district’s transparency reports between July 2016 and June 2017 and found more than $661,000 was paid out through a “PDL Device Repair” funding source.

“The PDL founding is part of the technology funding for the students, and it’s an average of $600 per student for those who are participating in the PDL program,” Gasperson said.

Gasperson says 5th grade elementary and high school devices are repaired under manufacturer care plans, but a care plan wasn’t an option when the district purchased Apple iPads for middle schoolers. Those repairs, Gasperson says, are performed by outside vendors who went through the district’s procurement process

News13 asked how many devices were damaged, repaired or serviced in the 2016-2017 school year, but district officials told us the final number is not yet available. A 2015-2016 year end report showed about 6,200 middle school iPads were repaired for glass breakage during the year or scheduled for repair over that summer. About 2,900 high school devices were also repaired for glass breaks.

“We had to make the choices that woudl work best getting the devices fixed and repaired and put back into the hands of students,” Gasperson said. “And again, that’s a learning process because we’ve never been through that.”

Middle schoolers will receive new Chromebooks this school year. The district plans to replace high school Dell Venues next school year.