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Despite Seattle's tech focus, the school district lags in providing students computers

Rainier Beach High School
Wikimedia Commons
Rainier Beach High School

Computer coding and software jobs have become linchpins in Seattle's economy. But Seattle Public Schools has been outpaced by nearby school districts when it comes to providing computers to students.

Now the Seattle district is asking the school board to approve a $12 million purchase to try to catch up, including by providing all ninth graders with a laptop starting this fall.

“I was stunned when I heard that Seattle didn’t have a one-to-one computer policy, even in the higher grades, because of the amount of technology companies that are based here and the number of people who are moving here who work in tech and have kids,” said Frank Catalano, an education technology industry analyst based in Seattle.

The district is proposing to use funds from a capital levy approved by voters in 2016. Depending on the school, high school students would be allowed to take the laptops home so that they could do their homework, and they could borrow Wi-Fi hotspots if they don't have broadband access, said Chief Information Officer John Krull. About 15,000 households in Seattle lack internet access, according to a study by the city.

Tenth through 12th graders at four high schools that the district ranks as having high needs would also receive laptops this fall, Krull said. Those schools are Chief Sealth, Rainier Beach, Franklin and Seattle World School.

“We want to really make sure that we manage the change because we want this to be a help to the teachers and the students, so we’re going to make sure that we pace it so the school can handle the change,” Krull said.

Districts such as Everett, Lake Washington, Shoreline and Mercer Island all provide computing devices to at least high school students, and in some cases, younger kids.

Krull said providing laptops is an equity issue because students who attend more affluent schools often have their own laptops, but students who lack a computer have to go to public libraries or do homework on their phones. And he said it’s important that students learn computer skills to be ready for college or for the job market once they graduate.

The district also wants to buy iPads, Chromebooks and Windows devices for elementary and middle schools, but not one per student, he said.

Nevertheless, there’s concern among some parents that classrooms will become too dependent on screens. Some have voiced opposition to the Seattle school district’s proposed purchase of Amplify Science, a science curriculum that incorporates some online instruction and computer simulations.

Krull said the district will have filtering software on the computers to block inappropriate content. And he said the aim is to have teachers incorporate computers into everyday lessons, not replace traditional instruction.

In July 2017, Ashley Gross became KNKX's youth and education reporter after years of covering the business and labor beat. She joined the station in May 2012 and previously worked five years at WBEZ in Chicago, where she reported on business and the economy. Her work telling the human side of the mortgage crisis garnered awards from the Illinois Associated Press and the Chicago Headline Club. She's also reported for the Alaska Public Radio Network in Anchorage and for Bloomberg News in San Francisco.