iPads coming for North Hills students

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North Hills School District administrators plan to transform education by using tablets, setting up a STEAM center, turning secondary libraries to media centers and moving to online textbooks.

“This is about good teaching. All we're really doing is replacing the tools that we give the kids,” said Superintendent Patrick Mannarino. “Right now, all we give them is the book, which gives them a 50-pound backpack full of dead trees.”

Mr. Mannarino presented his proposal, “Transforming Education Through Innovation,” to school board members last Thursday.

The centerpiece of the proposal would put iPads in the hands of middle school students in 2015-16, high school students in 2016-17 and elementary students after that. Teachers at each level would receive MacBooks and iPads the previous year, along with professional development to determine how best to use the devices in their classes.

The district has some iPads on carts in the schools. “Extremely powerful things happen when we put iPads in the hands of kids,” Mr. Mannarino said. “They are running down the hall with excitement. They cannot wait to get that device into that class.”

Mr. Mannarino said he sees the 1:1 Initiative as the base of a building. Rising from the base to the roof are four pillars — a middle school STEAM program, transforming the middle school library into a media center, transforming the high school library and starting an Entertainment Technology Academy at the high school.

STEAM blends science, technology, engineering, art and math, and is a research-based approach across those subjects.

The program, facilities and curriculum changes will occur during the 2014-15 school year, with the STEAM center opening in August 2015.

The design for the middle school library will be done through the spring of 2015, with the furniture purchased in the spring and the renovations over the summer. The high school library will be redesigned from the fall of 2015 through the spring of 2016, and the renovations will take place over that summer.

“Libraries as we know them today really don't service our children,” said school board President Ed Wielgus.

With the libraries transformed to media centers, the STEAM center and the 1:1 initiative, North Hills will offer “the exact environment parents want when they send kids to cyber” schools, Mr. Mannarino said.

Mr. Mannarino’s final pillar takes advantage of the large video game industry in the Pittsburgh region. The Entertainment Technology Academy would utilize partnerships with colleges and entertainment industries, and would offer classes such as introduction to game programming, digital storytelling, mobile device app development and animation.

A pilot program will be offered to students in January 2015, with full course offerings that August.

Several administrators and board members visited the Elizabeth-Forward School District, which already made these changes.

Board member Annette Giovengo Nolish said she saw a junior high social studies class where “the teacher was able to easily differentiate for students, (teaching) in a way that met the individual student's learning needs.”

North Hills’ proposed 2014-15 budget of $71.7 million includes buying the MacBooks and iPads for the middle school without raising taxes, said David Hall, director of finance and operations.

But, he said, to do the library renovations and STEAM improvements would require a tax increase to the limit allowed by Act 1, he said.

But the district is in a better financial position to make these changes than many other districts, said board member Thomas Kelly.

“We are able to some of the things that we are talking about because we kept our financial house in order,” he said. “This is living proof that we are on the right track.”

Sandy Trozzo, freelance writer: suburbanliving@post-gazette.com.

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