Melba Lara: The COVID-19 pandemic forced a technology revolution on Chicago Public Schools. An investigation by WBEZ and Chalkbeat finds the district went on a tech spending spree over the last two years to transform the district. It bought more than $300 hundred million dollars worth of laptops, iPads, and other technology. But the school district does not have a clear plan for using technology to improve instruction, or a good system for tracking the new devices. Here now with more from the education news outlet, Chalkbeat, is senior reporter Mila Koumpilova. Thanks for joining us.
Mila Koumpilova: Thanks so much for having me, Melba.
Melba Lara: Let's start first with do we know how many devices Chicago public schools purchased since the pandemic began with that $300 million dollars?
Mila Koumpilova: We do. The district tells us that it has bought 311,000 laptops and tablets since March, 2020. I have to say that it took some back and forth with district officials over the past few weeks to arrive at that number, which didn't seem to be at their fingertips, when we first started asking questions about the district's technology spending. And we do know that more than 40,000 of these devices have not yet been handed out to schools
Melba Lara: And I understand CPS doesn't really know how the computers are being used once they even get to the schools.
Mila Koumpilova: Yes, that's really safe to say. Um, the district does have a system for tracking its devices on various campuses, but we found the district really is leaning on staff at their schools to update the system and that doesn't always happen based on the data that we got from the district. Only a small portion of devices are flagged as in use, which doesn't necessarily mean that they're not being used by anyone in the school. We just don't have a very clear picture of how many and how often they're being used.
Melba Lara: And why did the district go on a spending spree without a plan and without tracking systems in place?
Mila Koumpilova: We know that when the pandemic abruptly closed schools in March of 2020, Chicago, as many other districts across the country, had to scramble to buy computers and get them into the hands of students. We also know that here in Chicago, certainly that spending has continued even after students returned to campus is fulltime. The district has received really an unprecedented amount of federal COVID relief aid. And also dollars from a special federal funds to help districts buy technology and provide internet access to students. And all of these dollars come with certain deadlines. So in a sense, there is a use it or lose a dynamic there.
Melba Lara: And do you have a sense of whether or not the technology is actually helping students learn more?
Mila Koumpilova: I think it's safe to say that it's helpful, certainly in some classrooms. It has helped the district roll out its new universal Skyline curriculum, much of which is digitally based. But, because we have such a fuzzy picture of how broadly technology is used and how it's used, and because we don't really have, at this point, a vision from the district of how technology can really elevate learning, it's really hard to say in this moment how helpful it's being on campuses. District officials did say that they are currently working on a digital learning plan that will provide a clear blueprint for that for coming years.
Melba Lara: I've been speaking with Mila Koumpilova, a senior reporter at Chalkbeat. More on this investigation can be found at chalkbeat.org and wbez.org. This is WBEZ.
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