By Dale Mann
NEW KENSINGTON, Pa. – The Pennsylvania Department of Education has received the second of three $100K grants, as a commitment from the Verizon Foundation to implement its web-based Thinkfinity program, according to Verizon Media Relations Representative, Sharon Shaffer.
Shaffer states that the $300K investment in the PDE is part of the larger $35M spent by Verizon to update and expand the Thinkfinity web-based education program.
“The Verizon Thinkfinity grant provides Pennsylvania with an opportunity to thoughtfully populate the resources and materials component of a standards-aligned system,” said Carbon Lehigh Intermediate Unit’s Executive Director Robert J. Keegan, Jr. in a Verizon press release in February.
Currently, the CLIU is training technology integration mentors from 26 different intermediate units from around the state, Shaffer said. She added that those 26 will then become field trainers and begin to train others.
“We’ve found that this is a very effective way to get the Thinkfinity program into the Pennsylvania school system,” she added.
Some districts in Pennsylvania, such as Burrell School District in Lower Burrell, are happy with their existing technology, said Burrell School District Administrative Assistant, Shannon Wagner.
Wagner says that the district is currently using dual server-based and web-based technologies.
“We know that PLATO works already,” Wagner said of PLATO Learning, the server-based technology that is currently being used both in the middle school and the high school.
While Burrell School District has continually met AYP, Wagner admitted that it began as an AYP tool to advance individual students who were not meeting AYP thresholds.
“It can be used by any child to remediate their weaker skills,” Wagner said.
“We put it in place for every child to have contact with because it can also take a child from proficient to advanced,” Wagner said, adding, “It doesn’t have to be below-grade-level achievers who use it.”
Although Wagner says that the district is pleased with the results that the PLATO software has helped to facilitate over the past five years, she said that the company will no longer support the server-based system.
“We are desperately trying to make sure that we can go to the web-based program,” Wagner stated.
Wagner told us that in addition to the significant expense associated with PLATO’s web-based service, the district is also waiting on the necessary fiber optic lines by which to accommodate it.
Burrell School District is part of a grant that includes the WIU, as well as the Kiski Area, Franklin Regional and New Kensington-Arnold School Districts, she said. Adding that the lines will run from the WIU to the Northern Westmoreland Vocational Institute and then to the districts.
“It’s a more significant expense,” Wagner said of the upgrade from PLATO’s server-based to web-based service. She added that while the server-based service was a one-time purchase, the web-based option will require the district to pay a yearly fee.
While the PLATO service will be costing the Burrell district money, Shaffer says that the Verizon service is completely free.
In addition, Shaffer added that, “Thinkfinity online resources cross 8 academic disciplines aligned with the PDE’s vision.”
Thinkfinity is comprised of 55,000 educational resources which include grade-specific lesson plans, videos, virtual field trips, as well as educational games and home access to facilitate after-school learning, according to the Thinkfinity website.
The site also confirms that all of the Thinkfinity resources will be aligned to meet PDE academic standards.
Shaffer said that Verizon currently holds a quarterly call with the PDE and CLIU to monitor progress. She added that the terms of the grant also require the school districts who utilize the Thinkfinity program to file a quarterly impact report with Verizon.