iPads for seventh graders at Sweetwater school district MIA
Sweetwater Union High School District spokesman Manuel Rubio shows one of the iPads purchased by the district. In 2012 the district bought almost 8,000 iPads for all seventh graders. May 26, 2017. Brandon Quester, inewsource

iPads for seventh graders at Sweetwater school district MIA

Five years after the Sweetwater Union High School District board spent $4.5 million to put iPads in the hands of seventh graders, nearly all of the Apple tablets are classified as out of inventory, lost or stolen.

The district purchased 7,952 Apple devices in 2012 for students and teachers, promising the iPads would “help the students prosper in a technology driven society.”

Today, just 704 of those iPads remain active, according to data requested by inewsource. The district says it has no way to quantify whether the devices helped improve students grades, test scores or academic outcomes.

“I would like to see the analysis. What did the students get out of it? How did it really help them?” said Edgar Guerrero, a retired Navy helicopter pilot and homeowner in the district. “Did the students advance because of this technology that they received? Or was it just a failed experiment?”

The Sweetwater board approved the iPads as part of the 1-1 Initiative, a multi-year program intended to distribute electronic devices to all students in the district. Buying iPads was controversial from the start, as it has been in other parts of the country.

Nick Marinovich, chair of the district’s citizen bond oversight committee, said that group raised questions early on about the initiative. Marinovich sent a letter to the board in 2012 questioning how the iPads would be funded and how the district “planned to measure their success.”

“It was a real push of whether these iPads were going to last the minimum of five years,” he told inewsource.

The time matters because of the source of money for the tablets. A bulk of the funding was to come from two sources: Proposition O bonds and Mello-Roos taxes, both typically used for projects with a lifespan of five years or more.

Prop. O was passed by voters in November 2006, providing general obligation bond funds to improve the school campuses in the district. Mello-Roos taxes are extra property taxes paid by property owners in relatively new developments. Most Mello-Roos money in Sweetwater comes from homeowners living east of Interstate 805.

Of the $4.5 million total for the first year, $1 million came from Mello-Roos. An additional $1.8 million came from Prop. O bond interest earnings.

Manuel Rubio, a spokesperson with the district, said that at the time, the district’s board believed that Prop. O and Mello-Roos funding was appropriate. But because of the clamor from the community, the district changed the funding source for the initiative after 2012.

There were signs early on that the 2012 iPads would not last five years.

Rubio estimated that about around 5 percent of the iPads were lost the first few years of the program. However, district records analyzed by inewsource indicate much higher loss rates.

Manuel Rubio is the director of Grants and Communications at the Sweetwater Union High School District. In 2012 the district began a multi-year initiative to put iPads in the hands of students. May 26, 2017. Brandon Quester, inewsource

Manuel Rubio is the director of Grants and Communications at the Sweetwater Union High School District. In 2012 the district began a multi-year initiative to put iPads in the hands of students. May 26, 2017. Brandon Quester, inewsource

Of the nearly 8,000 iPads purchased in 2012, about 19 percent were reported lost, stolen and out of inventory by the end of 2014.

Today, 90 percent of those are lost, stolen or damaged.

“That just seems really, really high to me because if that was the case, we were losing 90 percent of devices at schools, I think our trustees would have a lot of issue with continuing with something like this,” Rubio said, adding that he wasn’t familiar with the data provided by the district. “I think I would have issue justifying a program like this.”

inewsource provided Rubio with the data on May 31, seeking additional explanation for the 90 percent loss from the 2012 iPads. As of the publishing of this story, Rubio didn’t provide further clarification.

Of the 2012 iPads reported out of commission, 76 percent – 5,503 – were classified as “out of inventory-damaged” on a single day, March 16, 2017. That was a month and a half after inewsource requested records about the district’s 2012 iPads. The district did not answer questions as to why so many 5-year-old devices were reported out of inventory on the same day.

Similar loss rates can be seen for iPads purchased the following years.

Sweetwater purchased 9,338 iPads in 2013. Of those, close to 18 percent were out of commission by the end of 2015. The district bought 12,652 more iPads in 2014. Of those, about 29 percent were out of commission by the end of 2016.

Rubio said the district has since switched to a leasing model for all new iPads. That lease estimates a useful life of two to three years for new devices.

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Rubio told inewsource the district does not track whether the devices have measurable impact on student grades. However, he said the tablets have given teachers the ability to get instant feedback and communicate directly with students and parents. Teachers also have the ability to check students’ progress and assist students behind on lessons by checking their personal device.

For example, an app used by some teachers allows them to test all of the students in the class and immediately know how well they’re learning a concept.

Canvas highlighted the Sweetwater Union High School District's iPad program as a success story. Courtesy of Youtube

Canvas highlighted the Sweetwater Union High School District’s iPad program as a success story. Courtesy of Youtube

The district doesn’t have any hard data on how that has impacted grades, test scores or overall learning.

“It is pretty anecdotal, but again we know that students need technology and will use technology in the future and so our hope is to prepare them for that,” Rubio said.

Thomas Ultican is a physics teacher at Mar Vista High School who taught math class in 2016. He questioned the need for the devices, saying he often asked his students to put the iPads away because they were more of a distraction than a help.

At first, students were given a choice between a digital or physical copy of their textbooks, he said.

“A whole lot of my students took the online version,” Ultican said. “Within the first five weeks of school, all of them had gone and gotten a (physical) textbook.”

District homeowner Guerrero said he supports the idea of technology in classrooms, if it’s done right.

“The technology should come after you’ve fixed the classrooms, after the student is proud to go to that school because it’s clean, it’s taken care of,” he said.

Guerrero said he worried Sweetwater decided to purchase the iPads to keep up with other school districts throughout the country, such as the Los Angeles Unified School District. That $1.3 billion program was mired in controversy, eventually resulting in lawsuits and an FBI investigation.

Other districts in San Diego County also experimented with iPads in the classroom. Vista Unified was one of the four school districts in the country featured for its digital implementation by the Alliance for Excellent Education during its annual Digital Learning Day teaching conference March 13, 2015.

Canvas, an online learning management system, highlighted the Sweetwater’s 1-1 initiative as a “success story.” The district has paid Instructure, Inc, the company that makes Canvas, $326,200 over three years for the educational software used in the iPads.

Aside from changing its funding source, the district has also changed its devices for high schoolers.

“We decided that (iPads) may not have been the best device for the high school level,” Rubio said. “And so what we do now is we actually roll out a Lenovo laptop, which is a lot more functional, has a lot more of the things that a high schooler would need.”

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About Andrea Lopez-Villafaña:

Andrea Lopez-Villafaña
Andrea Lopez-Villafaña was an investigative assistant with inewsource.

About Leonardo Castañeda:

Leonardo Castañeda
Leonardo Castañeda is a reporter and economic analyst for inewsource. To contact him with tips, suggestions or corrections, please email leocastaneda [at] inewsource [dot] org.