Moving into the digital age

Supt. Grant Eloi, school board president Billy Benefield and board member Gladys McGaskey discuss Eloi’s  plans to submit a survey on cultural diversity. The discussion followed  the board’s committee meeting Tuesday. Photo by Carolyn Roy

Superintendent unveils plan to move school system forward

By Carolyn Roy,

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Traditional learning is fast expanding outside the classroom and Natchitoches Parish schools are joining the virtual age of education. Supt. of Schools Grant Eloi briefed the Natchitoches Parish School Board on his plan to move the schools into the digital age at the board committee meeting Tuesday. Eloi said that while COVID-19 resulted in tragic consequences, the pandemic pushed the system to modernize after the schools closed. The pandemic showed that Internet access was limited, particularly outside the city limits, with about 1,700 students having no access.

The board unanimously approved his plans at Thursday’s regular meeting for using a $2.9 million federal stimulus grant from the CARES Act to pay for the technology upgrades and safety equipment. NetworkNatchitoches has a goal to provide Internet access within one mile of every child in the parish. That will be accomplished by creating 100 hotspots at churches and businesses throughout the parish. Students and their parents could utilize those services that will hopefully be “a short car ride away.”

The hotspots will provide Internet access within a 1,000-foot radius and students can download lessons for a week if needed. It will not be public WiFi but will be configured to connect to trusted educational sites.

“The Network Natchitoches hot spots will be available throughout the entire school year; it is not just for Covid-19,” said Supervisor of Curriculum and Instruction Aly Erikson. The school board has also used the grant to upgrade technology and purchase 2,300 iPads with cases and keyboards that can be tracked if they are lost.

“This will be a one-to-one district for the first time,” Eloi said. Every student will have a device and will not have to share. Teachers will get laptop computers so they can work from home. Every classroom will have an Apple TV connector so students’ work and instruction can project to a screen. The test for the new system will be during summer school July 20-31. The session will be for students in grades third through eighth who are at-risk and need remediation. They will get iPads for classes in English and language arts and math. Summer school for high school will be the same dates and the 136 targeted students will also get iPads. They will receive invitations to Transition Academy conducted through Odysseyware. There will be eight summer school teachers.

In addition to technology upgrades, the CARES grant will pay for replacing water fountains with 55 dispensers from which students can refill water bottles; putting hand sanitizers throughout the schools; buying custodial cleaning supplies; buying 150 desks to accommodate social distancing; supplying touchless thermometers; and installing 28 threshold metal detectors that also detect body temperatures. Eloi said the funds would be a giant step forward for the system and ensure the safety and well-being of the students.

The board voted unanimously to let Eloi create the positions of Director of Academics and Director of Operations for non-academic duties such as budget, bussing, food service, federal programs, etc. The new positions will be at no additional costs to the general fund since he will restructure the central office.

The positions will be advertised. Before the vote, Eloi told the board that when he was interviewed, they asked for change and improvement and a better outcome for students. “This is my first step in doing that,” he said.

Other business included:

•High school graduations will be July 9-11 in Turpin Stadium at NSU. Eloi is communicating with graduates entering the military and those working away to honor their graduations.

•The food service served 73,757 meals after schools closed.

•Eloi has met with junior high schools to ensure the athletic programs will go forward in a consistent, formal manner.

•Eloi continues to communicate with the A+Coalition and other community members.

•Eloi will continue talks with Northwestern State about associate degrees and dual enrollment classes for parish students; and with Central Louisiana Technical Community College.

•The school board is considering developing a social media policy for employees. Reba Phelps and Steven Harris will be on a committee along with other appointees to develop the policy.

•Social media for the system will be consolidated and managed by one employee provided by the technology contract.

•State Supt. of Schools Cade Brumley will present expectations for the upcoming school year June 22.

•Eloi is creating a cultural diversity survey aimed at valuating all people and honoring everyone’s context; it will address discipline, be human based and “be a critical lens of our own behavior.” The survey will be ready at the end of next week. Board member Gladys McGaskey requested examining cultural diversity.

•The board voted to get a comparison of what it will cost to lease buses and hire its own drivers versus contracting with ECCO Ride. The board will also seek RFPs for a new contract.

•The board adopted two school calendars for next year designed to recover days that may be lost to such events as hurricanes or a second round of COVID-19. They will be considered contingency plans and the one that best fits the situation will be used.