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Norwalk Schools tech chief says improvements are on the way

Nowalk Public Schools Director of Technology and Innovations Ralph Valenzisi gave parents an update at what was billed as a budget forum last week at Roton Elementary School.
Nowalk Public Schools Director of Technology and Innovations Ralph Valenzisi gave parents an update at what was billed as a budget forum last week at Roton Elementary School.

NORWALK, Conn. – It’ll be a while before Norwalk can have one Chromebook for every high school student, but there is an answer in sight to at least give the kids more access – a bring-your-own device policy.

Also, the elementary school kids should soon have an app for typing practice, Director of Technology and Innovations Ralph Valenzisi said last week.

Parents attending the Norwalk Public Schools budget forum held Thursday in Rowayton asked Valenzisi for a status report, inquiring about everything from automated emails to parents to allowing the kids to print from their Chromebooks. That included questions about possibly increasing the staffing to get things done.

“I’ll be the first person to say I push staff to limit, definitely to the breaking point, but I am also very frugal. We knew that this year, going in, I keep saying that we ripped off the Band-Aid completely, we kind of tossed and decided to start fresh, jumped in with both feet and wanted things to work very well but put things in place that needed to be in place,” he said.

One parent asked if Chromebooks could be provided to every high school student. Valenzisi said he’d love that but there are financial constraints.

Since January, 4,500 Chromebooks have been distributed through the district, he said. There’s a “good amount” at the elementary and middle schools, and “I think we just delivered another 240 to each of the high schools,” he said.

But one solution would be a Bring Your Own Device policy. A network infrastructure needs to be in place so students can have access and teachers can track what is going on. It would have to work for PCs, Macs, Chromebooks and phones, with a standard platform for the teachers, he said.

“That for us really has become Google in a lot of ways, so that’s really what we’re working on,” Valenzisi said. “A lot of our professional development for our teachers these years is around the idea of using Google apps for education, so the idea is having wireless, ideally before end of year, a BYOD policy in place.”

Yes, there are plans to print from Chromebooks, but that will be over time. “I am trying to limit that as much as possible because I would like to see our printing go down more and more. … Getting networks to work with Google print is one of the issues we are grappling with, but it is coming,” he said.

A mother of two Brookside Elementary School pupils asked if there was a typing program available to teach kids early before they form bad habits.

“It’s called typing club. It will be available to them at home from Google Chrome,” Valenzisi said.

Valenzisi said much time has been spent on “a big transition” to PowerSchool, a web-based student information system. That had been made a priority, he said. “I had to make sure high school transcripts were right before I could make sure the second-graders had typing,” Valenzisi said. “Now that we’ve picked off the different data systems that have to connect to PowerSchool … we’ll be working on typing club this week.”

There was a pilot program for this app last year to see how it would work, he said. Perhaps in a couple of weeks the kids, from second grade on up, will be using it, he said.

Teachers will be able to see how much time the kids have devoted to the app, he said.

PTO leaders asked if Mailchimp could be used to send parents information. Valenzisi said PowerSchool can do that, but that isn’t assessable to PTOs.

Pressed about staffing, Valenzisi said another technician had just come on board, but things are shifting to a cloud-based system, which is easier to manage, and that will be a factor in future staffing.

As an example, in the next few weeks, the teachers will be able to contact a help desk, “something we never had in this district,” he said.

Technicians as well as data entry people will be able to access computers remotely and offer assistance, he said.

“We’re really making some changes, but we feel like that’s going to become more effective because people will get a quicker response on some of the things they’re looking for and it’s really more the industry standard,” Valenzisi said.

His staff is now catching up with other systems, he said. “We literally are putting in everything new,” Valenzisi said. “I kind of bit off more than I can chew in the first year, I know that but I know it was important that we start heading in the right direction and the staff and everybody has been very, very patient and very, very supportive, too.”

Comments

28 responses to “Norwalk Schools tech chief says improvements are on the way”

  1. Screwed Taxpayer

    So the 200k a year in salary and benefits IT genius that we had to hire can’t figure out how to get a “simple” cost effective device to print across a LAN? What else can’t this guy do? Now our kids can stream Netflix and God knows what else instead of listening to lectures. Hopefully they’ll never figure out how to turn the print options on so our paper costs don’t explode.

  2. Screwed Taxpayer

    Are teachers supposed to be teaching or on the phone with a help desk all day figuring out how to get some pie in the sky technology working that is supposed to magically deliver our children to the promised land of knowledge? End this joke now and get back to basics of education.

    The engineers of the Manhattan project and the Apollo missions went to one room school houses. Today we can’t even get rockets off the ground.

  3. srb

    I’m one of those overpaid and underworked school teachers who screws the taxpayer, but ironically I have to agree with screwed taxpayer on this one. Unless those students in the classroom are strictly limited to particular material the devices are huge distractions. There are settings that they work great but they are no panacea. Slight note on the dig at the rocket…that was a private company using dated technology (Soviet), not the government much less NASA

  4. Screwed Taxpayer

    I never said teachers don’t work hard. They have the hardest job on the planet. True they are overpaid relative to equivalent education for the private sector.

    NASA is contracting the work on rockets now….so we are truly getting lowest bidder. The reason for Russian and Ukrainian technology being used is simple. These are the same engineers from NASA that moved to Eastern Europe after Obama mothballed the space program. Sorry to burst your bubble there.

  5. MarjorieM

    Bring in someone who knows what they are doing! This guy clearly does not know what he is doing.

  6. Ergo

    How about first installing WIFI in the schools so they can actually use the Chromebooks. And then upgrading the electricity so that the school can support the WIFI and charge all the Chromebooks. Right now most schools don’t have WIFI or enough electricity to charge the Chromebooks or support a WIFI system.

    Just a thought.

  7. Jody Sattler

    Ralph has done an amazing job with technology since he arrived. I’m assuming the people posting these comments do not have children in the schools. If you did you would know the schools do have wifi and the students are getting access to more desktops and Chromebooks. The help desk actually lets teachers get back to teaching. Right now, the technology liaisons, who are teachers, in each school are expected to fix computer problems which takes them away from classroom duties. Ralph is one of the most effective staff members at Central Office and he has accomplished a lot since he took this job. Please direct your negative comments somewhere else, Ralph doesn’t deserve it.

  8. All our schools now have Wifi. The guy who ‘does not know what he’s doing’ got them all on Wifi, brought in thousands of Chromebooks (which have been working fine and performed flawlessly in the first SBAC test run), upgraded the school system to PowerSchool (which is working very well), and is activating the first help desk for IT issues for NPS, among other improvements.

    Oh, if only we could return to the good old days, with no Wifi, 10-year-old desktop computers, no help desk, etc., before he arrived!

    BTW, I agree that computer technology isn’t even close to being a panacea. It is a tool, which like most tools can help greatly if used properly, or do no good at all if not. No one at NPS says that this technology ‘is going to magically deliver our children to the world of knowledge.’ These improvements are a small component of a much larger effort to improve teaching in our schools (see. e.g., https://www.nancyonnorwalk.com/2014/02/rivera-takes-charge-recommends-curriculum-literacy-program, and https://www.nancyonnorwalk.com/2014/08/norwalk-boe-approves-teacher-school-administrator-evaluation-process). Try to keep all this in context.

  9. MarjorieM

    Jody, you obviously haven’t heard all the complaints from teachers about technology.

  10. Jody Sattler

    MajorieM, Of course there are complaints, there always will be, but Ralph has made more progress than any other technology director at central office. There is always more to do and its very difficult to keep up with all of the technology updates with a small staff and insufficient budget. All change comes with complaints. Also, it’s easy to complain but hard to solve problems. I think you’ve got the complaining part covered, how about offering some realistic solutions other than,”bring in somebody who knows what they are doing.”

  11. Yankee Clipper

    Jody, just remember you are arguing with Colarossi (Marjorie is his stage name). He hates change, wants Daddona and his old cronies back. The old Norwalk way — it was so much better!

  12. MarjorieM

    Yankee Clipper, I am not Colarossi. Get your facts straight. This is politics as usual. Mike Lyons to the defense and the truth is buried. Shall we talk about the disaster in HR as well? I have said what needs to be said here. Believe it or not. I really don’t care.

  13. Marj, what truth am I “burying”? Are we on Wifi or not? Was there Wifi before Ralph or not? Chromebooks before or not? PowerSchool before or not? I’m not saying everything is perfect, but I’ve seen big improvements since Ralph got here. If you claim that any of these statements aren’t truthful, provide some evidence of that. I’ve seen high school kids using an App on their iPhones to look up their assignments and grades on PowerSchool, something unheard of before. That’s the truth.

  14. Oh, and by the way, we also have an upgraded web site, Facebook and Twitter presence, and instant messaging for parents in the event of emergencies, all non-existent before the ‘man who doesn’t know what he is doing’ got here. Also the truth.

  15. Norwalk Sage

    It does sound like a potentially huge distraction for teachers to manage. I assume these devices are governed so kids don’t go to “adult” and otherwise inappropriate sites. Do teachers have the power to limit sites students are accessing to what is relevant to the day’s lessons?

  16. MarjorieM

    Mike, go check NorwalkSpeaks and ask the teachers there about what they think. Have this conversation with them, if you want the truth.

  17. Suzanne

    Not to be a total Luddite but when was the last time these kids saw a butterfly or touched a caterpillar? Or rolled down a grassy hill? While this technology might all be in “perspective” with what is current technology in good school districts across the nation, I too think that with these tools comes an alienation from nature, a topic and experience in the world that is more needed, not less. I hope there are more than a few school gardens at least so that, in spite of those beautiful images secured on WEB sites, there is at least the knowledge, through experience, for example, of where our food comes from.

  18. Marj, I’ve talked to plenty of Norwalk teachers who are pleased that the schools are finally pulling out of static mediocrity and starting to improve. NorwalkSpeaks is a joke. Is a full of anonymous whiners, making unverified attacks that are all assertions and accusations, with no evidence. I’ve visited it a few times and after realizing how useless it is, I stopped visiting. If that blog is your criteria for truth, your criteria is roughly the equivalent of medieval methods of determining guilt. Here’s a video representation of NorwalkSpeaks: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zrzMhU_4m-g.

  19. Suzanne, again, the Chromebooks and technology in general are a small part of the educational program at our schools. Our children are constantly going on field trips out of our school buildings (we approve such trips at every Board meeting). Hands-on learning is a key component of the curriculum updates we are promoting throughout the schools. Our middle school kids go to Nature’s Classroom for week-long experiences of nature every year. We have started an internship program at NHS, and are working on an IB program at McMahon. Our Center for Global Studies at BMHS sends students to Japan and China. What they do on their Chromebooks is only a part of the program.

  20. Suzanne

    Glad to hear it.

  21. Yankee Clipper

    And Suzanne there are many gardens — at least at all of the schools I am familiar with. My high schooler spends every free minute working in the BMHS garden. In addition there is the partnership with Norwalk Grows. Check out Norwalk Grows on Facebook.

  22. Jason White

    Mike – if you have to tout the fact that we now have updated social media sites and the ability to text parent’s cell phones, we really must be in trouble. My summer intern was able to do all of that for my company, in about 1/2 a day for $18/hour. It’s really not that big of a deal.

  23. Mike Lyons

    So Jason, you think things were better when we didn’t have them?

  24. Jason White

    Mike – that’s not what I’m saying, nor do I wish to get into a war of words with you.

    You brought up the fact that we now have social media platforms and I simply stated that it’s not something to tout. You took my words and twisted them to fit your narrative.

  25. MarjorieM

    It appears to me, Jason , Mike Lyons loves to attack those with whom he does not agree. There is no room for the opinions of others. In his words, they are “whiners.” Everything but his statements are “a joke.” He reminds me of school principals who demeans teachers so that they don’t complain. And that’s the way I see it……..

  26. Joe

    Mr. Valenzisi said that over four thousand Chromebooks “have been distributed” to Norwalk public school students.

    I looked and saw that Chromebooks cost around $200 each.

    Please tell me that the students’ parents were required to pay for these devices unless they were properly means-tested and determined to be “needy” and “poor”.

    Well-to-do families shouldn’t be allowed to mooch from our public school system.

  27. Screwed Taxpayer

    Jason is spot on. The city overpays for mediocrity. They all pat themselves on the back for doing their jobs at above market prices. It is why our education system is screwed. The reason we are falling behind in things like math and science is because we pay people with teaching degrees, which is one of the easiest degrees to obtain, more than we do scientists and engineers. It has distorted our labor market and had a very corrosive effect on our society in general. I’m sorry to say with smart people like Mike Lyons continuing to hold the water for this failed industry, things will only get worse before they can get better. God help our children.

  28. Marj – “It appears to me, Jason, Mike Lyons loves to attack those with whom he does not agree. There is no room for the opinions of others. In his words, they are “whiners.” Everything but his statements are “a joke.”

    Marj, I respond on this site, not initiate. When others (like you) attack the schools or their personnel and I defend them, you accuse ME of ‘attacking’. I think you have that backwards. And I’ve never said that all other statements but mine are a “joke” — I said that the whiny NorwalkSpeaks blog is a joke. There have been several occasions on this site where I’ve publicly agreed with you, Marj. I differentiate between the reasonable and the silly.

    Joe – “Mr. Valenzisi said that over four thousand Chromebooks “have been distributed” to Norwalk public school students.”

    The article actually says “Since January, 4,500 Chromebooks have been distributed through the district.” Through the district, not ‘to students’. The Chromebooks never leave the buildings; they are NPS property and are not given to students.

    Screwed – “I’m sorry to say with smart people like Mike Lyons continuing to hold the water for this failed industry, things will only get worse before they can get better. God help our children.”

    I sympathize with your general argument about the pay of government employees. We have been working, with some success, at getting those costs under control through contract negotiations, outsourcing, etc. (for which we are regularly attacked). But we have two real world choices — 1) do nothing but fruitlessly complain on blogs, or 2) step into the fray and try to make things better. I chose the latter option. And things in Norwalk ARE getting better (don’t let Marj’s never-ending bellyaching blind you to that fact). For instance, see https://www.nancyonnorwalk.com/2014/06/opinion-a-status-report-from-the-board-of-education. Or https://www.nancyonnorwalk.com/2014/09/jefferson-magnet-school-given-high-honor. Or https://www.nancyonnorwalk.com/2013/08/test-scores-norwalk-tops-among-cities-but-lags-behind-state. Or https://www.nancyonnorwalk.com/2014/08/rilling-lauds-norwalk-boes-transparency-regarding-its-2-9-million-surplus.

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