Penn Manor schools boost technology, toss paper

Penn Manor superintendent Michael Leichliter (center) worked with Brenda Becker of Hempfield and Gene Freeman of Manheim Township to launch the Open Campus program this fall. The program will allow students to enroll in virtual courses. (Suzette Wenger / Staff)

School may look the same Monday when Penn Manor ushers in the new school year.

But, unlike last year, no major construction projects are underway in any of the buildings, and future projects are months away.

However, technology director Charlie Reisinger promises "substantial changes" involving technology and the new Open Campus program with Hempfield and Manheim Township school districts will be rolled out this year.

High school principal Phil Gale said the district has 20 to 25 incoming juniors and seniors enrolled in at least one Open Campus virtual course. In all, Gale said about 120 students enrolled across the whole consortium.

Open Campus offers a flexible schedule and provides opportunities to take classes not otherwise offered at Penn Manor, such as Latin.

"We were not looking for droves of kids" this year, Reisinger said, emphasizing that it is a pilot program.

This year will also mark the end of the paper report card for almost all high school and middle school students. For now, elementary students will receive paper progress reports and final grades. Official transcripts for college applications also will be provided in paper format.

Reisinger said the district is posting electronic report cards and progress reports on the district's Sapphire web portal, and parents will have to opt in to receive a full-color hard copy by mail.

"It's wasteful and expensive to print a paper report card when student grades are available in real-time on the web," Reisinger said.

With a traditional four marking periods worth of report cards to print, the switch to electronic grades will save on paper, time and energy as well as improve communication, Reisinger said.

The district also is making the switch to online registration for new students, replacing the thick stack of registration forms parents currently receive.

"We're trying to eliminate paper redundancy, and writer's cramp," Reisinger said.

When students and staff log on to fill out the forms, they may notice faster network speeds. Reisinger oversaw the district's installation of an additional 100 megabytes of Internet bandwidth.

Along with the increased bandwidth comes a new look to the district's virtual learning platform, Moodle and an online electronic learning workshop for teachers.

The change also facilitates greater use of student-owned personal devices as the district expands its bring-your-own-technology open wireless program.

The district launched an Android application program - Comet News - at the end of May. Reisinger said the app was developed in-house for free by tech specialist Tom Schwartz.

"I'm not aware of any other local district with a mobile news app," Reisinger said. For those who don't own a smartphone, building news is accessible on the district's website.

Each of the district's elementary school classrooms is receiving six new student laptops, replacing desktop computers that are eight to 10 years old. The new laptops will save the district more than $300,000 by using the open source Linux operating system, as opposed to Windows or Mac, possibly making it the largest implementation of open source in a school district across the state.

While the changes may sound overwhelming, Reisinger said the technology upgrades are user-friendly and will provide new capabilities and learning opportunities for students and teachers.

Elementary students will see new faces this year, including two new principals.

Tamara Baker has taken over Dan Martino's position as principal at Conestoga Elementary. Baker had been a guidance counselor at Hambright Elementary.

Krista Cox, an assistant high school principal, will be filling in for Jen Sugra as principal of Eshleman Elementary during Sugra's sabbatical this year.

One change that will impact all students will be menu changes in the cafeteria.

Under the federally mandated Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, all school districts will need to make some changes: white bread will be replaced with whole grain, flavored milk must be fat free, dessert will be fruit or fat-free pudding and students must be given at least three servings of vegetables.

Prices for secondary student tiered lunch, which includes the soup and salad bar option, will increase 25 cents. There will be no change in elementary or other secondary meal prices this year.

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