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Student 'geek squad' preps thousands of laptops for Buffalo schools

How do you ready thousands of computers for the start of school?

Get help from the students, of course.

That’s what Buffalo Public Schools did. The district assembled its very own “geek squad” this summer when it hired a couple dozen of its high school students to service the ever-growing inventory of school laptops, tablets and 3D printers.

They booted them up to make sure they worked. They cataloged them, upgraded security, updated software and set them up with Wi-Fi. They checked for cracked screens and scraped away old stickers and labels stuck to the sides and wiped clean random video clips left behind by kids.

“Basically, it’s getting them ready for students this year,” said Galib Ovik, a junior.

Buffalo is like a lot of school districts that have been buying millions of dollars worth of new computers for the classroom in recent years through the Smart Schools Bond Act, which New York voters approved in 2014 to finance technology and infrastructure improvements in the schools.

The district spent some $13 million on classroom technology, distributing 11,500 laptops and tablets during the last school year, explained Sanjay Gilani, the district’s chief technology officer.

Another 10,000 will be rolled out this year with the goal of providing a device to every student in grades 3 to 12, and anywhere from four to 10 devices per classroom in grades K to 2, he said. In all, Gilani said, the district will have handed out more than 31,000 devices for student use at school by the end of next year.

The problem is the district has only 10 IT technicians to service all the computers.

That’s where the students came in.

The district worked with the Mayor’s Summer Youth Program to hire 22 students as paid interns for six weeks starting in early July. They were trained on what to do and sent them out into the schools in groups, each with a technician and instructional technology coach on site.

The students – officially known as the Student Technology Leadership Program – worked 8:30 a.m. to noon four days a week.

Student Technology Leadership Supervisor Natasha Mehta, right, works with student Angel Quinones at Bennett High School. (Mark Mulville/Buffalo News)

“Fridays were a full day training,” said Eric Stockmeyer, a project administrator in the IT Department, who oversaw the program with Brianna Pride, an instructional technology coach in the district, “not just doing those things in the field, but coding, video content creation, 3D printing. We wanted to expose them to different types of IT.”

In the end, Gilani said, the students readied some 13,000 laptops and devices.

The school district couldn’t have done it without them.

“We could,” Stockmeyer said, “they just wouldn’t have been ready for the school year.

“So in that sense,” he said, on second thought, “no – we couldn’t do it without them.”

The 22 students were recommended for the job, about a third of them coming from the Lewis J. Bennett School of Innovative Technology, like Ovik.

They didn’t necessarily have the computer skills coming into the summer.

“I didn’t know what I was in for, but I ended up liking it a lot and it sort of pushed me out of my comfort zone,” said Ren Pawlak, 15, a sophomore at Bennett.

Emani Clyburn is interested in graphic design, but it opened her eyes to the possibilities.

“It’s fun,” said Clyburn, 16, a junior at Bennett, “and now technology is such a big thing, so it’s great I’m learning early.”

Ovik, 17, wants to be a doctor, but said he learned a lot this summer, not only about computers but about cooperating and speaking up.

“It definitely interests me a lot, because I like helping people out and it’s one of the most growing fields that pays a good amount,” said Erin Hannon, 15, a sophomore at the New Buffalo School of Culinary Arts and Hospitality Management.

And it didn’t hurt she earned $10.40 an hour.

“That’s another nice thing,” Hannon said.

While part of the intent was to give students the IT exposure and experience, there was a real need for their help as the technology only continues to grow in the schools, Gilani said.

Last year, for example, the district received roughly 28,000 “help” tickets – up 20 percent from the year prior – dispatching technicians to the schools to solve computer problems.

Gilani estimates 85 percent were relatively minor fixes and figures that his squad could handle more than half of those.

Which got him thinking: Why not train "geek squads" throughout the district?

In fact, he experimented with the idea this past year at Marva J. Daniels Futures Preparatory School on Carlton Street and it went well.

“That’s my goal,” Gilani said, “that we can do it in every school and I would insist they be paid, because they are doing real work and the district benefits.”

After this summer, Hannon feels up to the task.

“We realized a lot of problems teachers complain about are simple stuff,” Hannon said, “like a cable wasn’t plugged in or they weren’t connected to Wi-Fi.”

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