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La Joya ISD has invested $6.5 million in technology for the upcoming school year.
Clem Garza, the director of the La Joya Independent School District Technology & Instructional Resources department, spoke about how the unprecedented pandemic led the district to begin allocating more funding toward accessible tech for students and teachers.
“It’s really about bridging that gap and providing access,” Garza said. “We want to make sure our kids have access and are connected.”
Garza, who comes from a curriculum and instruction background as a former principal, knew they needed to use what they had to provide access to all students.
“Companies offer a lot of digital and online resources, so it helps,” Garza said. “So we need to make sure we get as much as possible, and every year we have been very fortunate to get funding from our Title I director for special funds, which has been used for technology.”
While the district had already invested in devices, the coronavirus pandemic’s closure of schools meant more students needed access to not only tech, but Wi-Fi and hotspots. Buses were deployed all day during the remainder of the spring semester starting after Spring Break, driving around key points in the district to offer internet access to all students who needed it to complete assignments.
“Right now we have 50 school buses out there that have been going out to the communities,” Garza said. “The transportation director has spread them out everywhere in the district.”
For those who still find it difficult to access Wi-Fi, Garza said the Transportation Director Raul Gonzalez has been taking calls from parents, and instructing drivers to ensure their areas are covered as well. Garza added that students can also use the access points to download assignments and work on them from home, because once they are on their systems they can work without the internet.
“It’s about bridging the digital divide that does exist,” Garza said.
The student population at LJISD deals with socioeconomic hardships not typically found in other districts, making accessibility of the utmost importance for leadership.
“As soon as this [pandemic] came out, immediately everyone on campuses were checking what [tech] they had available, to get it out there to the students,” Garza said. “We got busy ordering whatever we could, and checked them out from the schools.”
So far, LJISD has invested in access points, routers, antennas, iPads and iPhones for hotspots because other hotspots are harder to find at the moment.
“We did invest in about 800 hotspots, and basically the monthly service for them [the hotspots],” Garza said, explaining that the access points have been installed in 12 LJISD campuses. “The access points have been installed outside of the buildings of schools, so they can radiate their Wi-Fi signal out to neighborhood areas up to about a quarter of a mile.”
Teachers at LJISD have also received several trainings for the utilization of technology in the classroom, and effective distance learning methods.
“We started right in April with Google Classroom, because it’s free and safe,” Garza said. “We started hosting a lot of one-hour, two-hour mini-sessions through May, and we haven’t stopped.”
Every student at LJISD has an account that can access Google Classroom. Garza has even started mentoring teachers through an academy that lasts throughout a school year to ensure they know how to utilize the tech to the fullest extent.
“I provide them the tools,” Garza said. “We know what works, so let’s train these teachers.”
During the second half of the spring semester this year, when campuses were closed, teachers still needed to be accessible and teaching throughout the day. The Technology & Instructional Staff starting holding tranings from 4:30 to 6:30 p.m. and gave teachers the basics.
“We also did tranings for Google Meets, because that’s how we deliver the online lessons,” Garza said. “We also gave them apps here and there so they could make videos and upload them to their Google Classroom, so students could see them solve a problem or annotate.”
Including other methods of access meant students were able to do both synchronous and asynchronous learning, and receive their lessons in the best means possible considering the circumstances. Garza said while students and teachers alike are used to the face-to-face methods of teaching in-person, they have adapted to the new methodologies thanks to trainings, tutorials and time.
Paraprofessionals, clerks and secretaries will also be receiving training so there is as much support as possible when parents call.
Because updates are received daily, and protocols are changing, the way school is structured may be different. Garza said the district has sent out surveys to parents and teachers to determine how they will conduct class during the 2020-2021 school year.
“We want to see how they feel and hear from them to see what they need,” Garza said. “We haven’t made final decisions yet because we want teacher and parent opinion.”
Garza credits district leadership for finalizing the investment in new tech, saying they are in constant contact and meeting every week to determine specifics for the next year.
“We’re doing everything possible to make everyone feel comfortable, and we’re preparing,” Garza said. “Our superintendent is a believer in that personal connection, so we’re taking care of all the operational stuff so everyone is safe and secure [no matter what]. We cannot allow our kids to have any gaps. La Joya ISD is doing everything possible to educate children – that is the priority.”