Apple’s iPads could be the best thing to hit classrooms since the chalkboard’s debut in 1801 — and a new educational foundation wants to make sure every elementary school kid in El Paso County has a tablet computer.
Neumann Education Foundation is the brainchild of Dave Neumann, owner and CEO of Neumann Systems Group, known in Colorado Springs for creating a coal scrubber that cleans 97 percent of sulfur dioxide from coal emissions. It’s being tested — and is set to go full-scale — with Colorado Springs Utilities.
Neumann detoured from coal scrubbers to educational foundations when he watched his 2-year-old granddaughter play Angry Birds on an iPad. He was amazed that the toddler could figure out the game and its complex physics problems.
The realization that kids could use iPads to learn dovetailed with Neumann’s need for a trained workforce in his business. He decided to take matters into his own hands.
So, he put iPads in the first-grade classroom at Bear Creek Elementary in District 38 during the second semester of the 2011-12 school year. He paid for the technology and let the school decide how to use it.
“There are more than 12 million apps for children for the iPad,” said Patrick Davis, president and CEO of the new foundation. “We believe that kids can learn through gaming, learning more and faster. And they’ll retain it better. It will give them an advantage on math, science, the basics.”
Neumann’s vision is to start in the first grade and provide iPads to all first-graders. The next year, they’ll add iPads for the second grade, and the third year, third-graders will receive the technology. They’ll add classes every year through fifth grade. That way, students have access to iPads during their entire elementary education.
“Middle school is too late,” Neumann said. “We have to get to kids while their brains are still forming, and get them interested then. In middle school, the teachers can refine what they’ve learned through gaming.”
Neumann said there is a lack of high-tech, skilled workers in Colorado Springs. As a business owner, he hires software and civil engineers — and sometimes can’t find them. Building the future workforce is the foundation’s main goal, he said.
And he doesn’t want to do it alone. He says that every business in Colorado Springs should be concerned about education, even as early as first grade.
“This is where we think the business community should stand up and help,” Neumann said. “This directly impacts what businesses do. They need well-qualified, well-educated workers.”
Currently, some high-tech businesses have resorted to opening offices outside the Springs to recruit workers. Neumann’s hope is that in the future, that won’t be necessary.
“If we can teach them early, get them interested, then we have the workforce we need,” he said. “This is in the businesses’ best interests. So we’re hoping to get most of the foundation privately funded. We don’t want state or federal grants — because those come and go. We want businesses to invest in their own future.”
The business community is intrigued, says Doug Quimby, president of the board of directors for the Greater Colorado Springs Chamber and EDC. But it’s not quite ready to pony up money. And that hesitation could hurt Neumann’s chances of seeing his dream become reality soon.
“I personally believe they have a good idea, and their goal is an admirable one,” Quimby said. “The Chamber and EDC will discuss supporting the foundation. I cannot yet say what form that support might take.”
Still, improving K-12 education in the Springs can’t be ignored, Quimby said.
“It’s (an issue) that is important to the chamber and EDC and to the economic future of our region,” he said. “Workforce development — the proper training and education of workers — is paramount to future economic and business success.”
He’ll find no disagreement in JD Dallager, president and CEO of the Pikes Peak United Way, which launched the “Success by 6” program last fall (focused more on preschool reading). But while Neumann again has verbal support and advocacy, it’s uncertain whether he’ll get the money he needs.
“I think we can partner in this,” Dallager said. “We can certainly be an advocate. It’s complementary to the education work we’re doing before first grade — he’s just taking it the next step. But at this time, we won’t be giving any financial support.”
Neumann’s foundation will have to wait until United Way’s next round of grants in 2014. By then, Dallager said, they’ll have data to back up what they’re claiming.
“They started a pilot program, and it’s gone well,” he said. “But they’ll have the same kids with iPads for three years, and by third grade, they’ll be able to show if there’s a difference in test results. That’ll be important to know.”
In the meantime, the foundation is focusing on expanding to other elementary schools, bringing other school districts on board, and canvassing the business community for donations. So far, Neumann has spent his own money on the program.
Spreading iPads to every class and every grade in every elementary school will cost lots of money. So far, he’s budgeted $200,000 for the first year, which includes Bear Creek’s second grade and three additional pilot projects.
Once the pilot projects are completed, Neumann anticipates a county-wide program will cost $3.3 million — the price of the iPads, Smart Boards for teachers, adequate broadband for schools, docking stations, training costs and assessments.
By the end of five years, ongoing costs would drop to $1.9 million a year.
Neumann acknowledges it’s a lot of money. But it’s well-spent if Colorado Springs can compete for high-tech companies.
The city is already behind some school districts. In Huntsville, Ala., the school system started a new digital initiative that includes digital textbooks, iPads for kindergartners through second-graders and laptops for students in third through 12th grades. It also includes a district-wide wireless network. Huntsville, home to NASA, Redstone Arsenal and the Missile Defense Agency, already has more engineers per capita than any other city in the nation.
Colorado Springs routinely competes with Huntsville for high-tech defense companies, contracts and workers.
“I think you could say they’re the city we compete with the most,” Davis said. “And if they’re already doing this, we’re going to be behind in creating the workforce we need.”