A Northbrook Middle School student takes part in a social studies lesson using an interactive whiteboard. Gwinnett County has invested about $40 million in technology upgrades for middle schools. ARLINDA SMITH BROADY/AJC

Multimillion-dollar upgrades online in Gwinnett middle schools

When Gwinnett County voters agreed in November 2015 to extend the penny sales tax for school improvement beyond the 2016-2017 school year, a major expenditure on the list was improved technology for high schools and middle schools. To ensure students will be able to compete in a digital society, state-of-the art equipment has now come online.

The upgrades included an expansion of eCLASS capabilities (online classes that can be taken remotely or at the school), student performance analysis systems, improved audiovisual and broadcast media capabilities, expanded support for wireless connectivity, student data security systems and student information system support.

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With middle schools set to have all retrofits finished by the end of October and new broadcast studio facilities installed by spring 2020, the Board of Education took a field trip to Northbrook Middle School during the September work session to see what the money paid for.

“Students should expect the same level of technology at school as in the rest of their lives,” said Northbrook Principal Keith Thompson. “They shouldn’t be overwhelmed by how advanced things are when they leave this building.”

The students concurred.

“The computers are a lot faster now, more like what I have at home,” said 8th grader Prabjab (Jab) Tuteja. “Thank you for investing in our future.”

It took about three months for Northbrook’s technology retrofit. All of the outdated equipment was replaced with up-to-date computers, infrastructure, projectors, document cameras, sound systems, video production equipment, servers, switches and more. Similar to other middle schools in the district, the price tag came in at over $1 million. In all, Gwinnett spent around $40 million on the upgrades to the 29 middle schools.

The tax will expire June 30, 2022 unless residents vote for another extension.

“It’s money well spent,” said Superintendent J. Alvin Wilbanks. “To receive a world-class education, you have to invest in equipment that keeps up with today’s technology.”

Besides having faster connections on the internet, students are learning how to present ideas and discuss concepts in large and small groups. They are able to feed off each other’s energy and the teachers can see in real time who’s keeping up.

Students are also learning to be more comfortable with technology, said Thompson. Instead of being a novelty, it’s becoming as familiar as a pencil and paper.

In a language arts class, the teacher guided students through the differences between cause and effect. All eyes were trained on the interactive whiteboard where color-coded boxes aided instruction. As hands flew up to answer questions, school board members nodded in appreciation.

“I don’t think I could have envisioned this on a spreadsheet,” said Vice-Chair Louise Radloff. “The interaction among the students and with the teacher is awe-inspiring.”

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