Despite some pointed criticism from top leadership, at least one person thinks highly of the Laptop for Learning program in Riverside Elementary School District 96.

Last month, Stephanie Carullo, Apple’s vice president for education, sent a letter and a nice plaque to D96 notifying the district that it was again being designated as an Apple Distinguished Program. 

“Congratulations on your continued recognition as an exemplary learning environment for innovation, leadership, and educational excellence,” Carullo wrote in her letter to D96 Superintendent Bhavna Sharma-Lewis. “The administration and faculty in the Laptops for Learning program have shown that they demonstrate the five best practices of an Apple Distinguished Program: visionary leadership, innovative learning and teaching, ongoing professional learning, compelling evidence of success, and a flexible learning environment.”

Sharma-Lewis showed off the plaque and letter at a November school board meeting. 

“We are very proud as a district to receive this designation,” Sharma-Lewis said in an email. “It is an honor to be recognized for the efforts District 96 teachers put forth to enhance 21st-century learning.” 

At the school board meeting when the designation was announced and plaque displayed, school board member Michael O’Brien had a more skeptical response.

“That’s what $400,000 will get you,” O’Brien said, referring to the $424,000 D96 paid Apple this summer for new computers and other equipment. O’Brien’s comment drew laughs. Some believe the Apple designation is merely a way to reward districts that buy a lot of Apple equipment. D96 has been a big purchaser of Apple equipment in recent years.

The Laptops for Learning program in D96 began in 2009. Every fifth-grader in the district is handed an Apple laptop computer, which they keep until they graduate from eighth grade. In addition, the district, like many school districts, also uses Apple iPads and iPods.

But some have complained that the Laptop for Learning program lacks a curriculum that takes full advantage of the computers, and the district’s faltering technology infrastructure makes it difficult to take full advantage of all the computers.

At a school board meeting earlier this year Zack Zayed, D96’s director of finance and operations, said the program was not nearly as advanced as he would have expected. Teachers and students sometimes have trouble accessing the Internet on their computers at school because the district is using antiquated Apple servers.  

At a Nov. 5 school board finance committee, Sharma-Lewis presented a recommendation that the district accept the proposal from the consultant, Client First, hired to examine the district’s technology issues. The proposal was to spend $275,000 over the next six months to upgrade technology infrastructure and operations. The proposal called for spending $167,500 on new equipment and $108,000 on operations over the remainder of the school year. The cost included using a contractor as the district’s interim technology director at $10,000 a month. Sharma-Lewis said she would like to hire a new hands-on technology director in the spring to start next year.

This may be one more indication that the current technology director, Vern Bettis, doesn’t have a long-term future in the district. Bettis, who has a one-year contract that expires on June 30, 2014, has not been a part of any technology discussions with the school board since Sharma-Lewis became superintendent on July 1.

However some school board members balked at Sharma-Lewis’ recommendation and nothing has been decided yet as board members look for alternatives and consider options.

“Why can’t we use our current personnel?” O’Brien asked. 

He also complained about the cost.

“We’re spending money like water and it bothers me a lot,” he said.

After the Nov. 5 meeting, O’Brien reached out to Illini Cloud, an educational technology cooperative that provides services to Illinois school districts.

“I don’t think we should blindly follow Client First down the path,” O’Brien said. “I just would like to get someone else’s opinion. We’re spending a lot of money here.”

One thing the district is likely to do is adopt a cloud-based email system to replace the sometimes unreliable Apple email that it currently uses.

“That should have been done a decade ago, and I don’t know why it wasn’t,” said school board member Art Perry.

Board members Rachel Marrello and Randy Brockway joined with O’Brien in wanting to look at other options, a move that board member Lisa Gaynor also said made sense.

But board member David Kodama pushed for fast action, saying that if technology problems were affecting education, he didn’t think the district should delay.

O’Brien sees no crisis.

“What’s wrong with sitting on our hands?” O’Brien said.

Sharma-Lewis replied, “We need someone immediately to manage this. We brought Client First in in August and it’s now November and we haven’t done anything.”

She told the board that if action is not taken soon, she would move on to other issues.

“We have special education and other priorities,” she said.

At the Nov. 19 school board meeting, O’Brien reported on his discussions with Illini Cloud and suggested having them come in and take a look at the district’s computer infrastructure. One option is not to buy new servers but to store data offsite with Illini Cloud’s servers at significant cost savings, he said.

“Illini Cloud has a compelling value proposition,” said Perry who works as an IT consultant. But Perry said Illini Cloud could not handle all the district’s technology issues.

School board President Mary Rose Mangia summed up the district’s current situation with an unanswered question.

“Where do we go from here?”

“Get Vern involved,” Brockway said.

With that suggestion, the conversation on the subject around the board table pretty much ended for the night.