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Schools get grant help to improve technology

McDuffie County Schools have received almost half of a million dollars to go high-tech thanks to a federal grant and some hard work. Technical Director Bob Weems said he received the notice two weeks ago that he will receive $436,535 from Universal Service Funds.

"I asked for the world, and I got almost all of it," Mr. Weems said. "So I'm really excited about it. It's a huge amount of work...unfortunately, but it's worth a lot of money to us."

The county has been receiving funds from the program - called the Education Rate - for the past nine years, but this is the largest amount they have ever received.

"It's a huge amount of money... It's a huge amount of savings for the taxpayers of McDuffie County," Mr. Weems said.

Annually, Mr. Weems said McDuffie County schools spend over $30,000 on operating expenses - approximately $13,000 for the network service, $12,000 for software to block pornography off the internet and $5,000 to block viruses.

"And that's just to keep what we're doing (existing), not to upgrade," Mr. Weems said.

The Universal Service Program provides schools and libraries funds for the infrastructure of their technological systems. It does not pay for computers. The program is funded through the "Universal Service Fee" on consumers' monthly telecommunication provider statements.

For McDuffie County, the bigger-than-usual payment will provide telephone equipment and network cabling for the new junior high school when it is built, upgrade the current systems with secure wireless access, re-cable the television distribution systems in Thomson Middle, Dearing Elementary and Maxwell Elementary Schools and pay engineers for set-up and maintenance service, Mr. Weems said.

McDuffie County students use technology every day in the classroom. Maxwell Elementary Principal Mychele Rhodes said "technology is an essential component of the instructional day." Dr. Rhodes said teachers in all the elementary schools use a rotation schedule, assigning some students to practice their math and reading lessons on a computer while others are in a small-group study with the teacher.

On the high school level, Media Specialist Jennifer Newton said students feel comfortable using technology of all types because it keeps their interest.

"The use of technology has truly opened the doors to the world. It allows our students to access information instantly from sources that in the past would have been inaccessible," she said.

"With higher standards and accountability comes the need (to) find new, innovative methods to reach our children, and computers are one of our greatest assets in doing this. In each of our schools, teachers use computers hourly for instruction. In many instances, computers have replaced paper," said Steve Rhodes, the principal of Norris Elementary.

And that is why Mr. Weems said he spends 60 percent of his time working on the grant application. The determining factor of recipient qualification is the percentage of students in the system receiving free or reduced lunches. This year, the nutrition department had more surveys completed, thus bringing in the additional grant funds.

Mr. Weems said the free lunch participation drops at the high school level, and he hopes for an increase to ensure more funds in the future. He is already filling out applications for next year's grants.

"A lot of people just don't ask for it. ... But it's something that I pursue heavily every year. ... It's very competitive. ... You almost have to sign your life away in blood ... jump through hoops sideways and hold your mouth right and be blindfolded to get any of this money."

Web posted on Thursday, November 16, 2006

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