If the only knowledge school administrators have of our laptop program in Henrico (Va.) Public Schools is through the media, they might think that giving laptops to students isn't worth the effort. News coverage correctly reported that a small number of students downloaded material they shouldn't have after we gave every high school student an iBook at the beginning of the 2001-02 school year.
Certainly this is distressing, but we've proven we can handle it. Experiencing this, and the other ups and downs of our laptop experience, has only strengthened our commitment.
Our laptop program narrows the digital divide. We have a diverse population in our county; some students come to school with every amenity, others do not have routine access to public libraries or print materials. A laptop program was the way to help all students while also preparing them for an increasingly technological world.
Here in Henrico, for example, we have a new semi-conductor plant that expressly moved here because of the promise of a technology-literate workforce. After viewing high school students using laptops for a school year, we are convinced the technology has opened up worlds of information at school and at home. Tutorials can now be assessed from anywhere: For example, geometry teachers have developed iMovies demonstrating how complicated geometric figures are drawn and problems solved. Students are creating data banks of their scientific findings in labs across the school system.
The laptops are a bridge to continuous learning for our high school students and will soon be the same for our middle schoolers. At the beginning of the 2002-03 school year, each middle school student will be given an iBook, bringing the total number of those who have their own school supplied laptop in our district to 24,000.
As for the unforeseen problems that surfaced during the school year, we dealt with each in a systematic, careful manner. By using focus groups of students and teachers, we identified the major problems.
We have also dealt with a small number of students -approximately 40-downloading pornography from their home connections onto their laptops. We've reconfigured the laptops to limit downloading of inappropriate material, as well as file sharing. This step will discourage such behavior.
We have since made it clear to our students that those who violate the laptop-use agreement are subject to disciplinary action, and may even lose the privilege of using the technology.
Before giving the iBooks to the middle school students, we will train and test them at school on effective use and responsible care. Parents will be required to attend an extended three-hour training session to assist in monitoring home use.
It has been said that "pioneers take the first arrows" and it is no doubt we have faced many challenges. However, we absolutely believe that this effort will ultimately provide huge dividends for our students.
Mark Edwards is superintendent of the Henrico County (Va.) Public Schools.