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Learning With Laptops

These five examples show different ways school districts are funding laptop programs

The idea of giving laptops to a large number of public students is officially entering its second phase. It has been almost four years since the big breakthrough, when Virginia's Henrico County Public Schools bought 23,000 iBooks for teachers and students.

Since that time, other districts large and small have tried to emulate this program, including a plan in Cobb County School District in Marietta, Ga., to buy 63,000 iBooks for teachers and students in grades 6-12.

While programs like these are growing, it is at a slow rate, says Jenny Little, vice president of education at eKat Consulting Group, a Philadelphia-based firm that plans, implements and reviews school laptop programs.

"It's fair to say that the slow growth is tied to the reasonably conservative nature of education and maybe conservative communities," she says.

But national data points to other factors. Little says there's growing evidence that suggests the reason schools don't create laptop programs has little to do with funding and more to do with a lack of vision and leadership.

Still, computers have become powerful classroom tools and schools are now being asked to "view technology not as a separate entity but as an integral part of the education process," she says. "The way it's funded should be seen as an educational initiative, not as a separate technology initiative."

Here are five case studies from successful laptop programs of all types. While each is unique in the way they're designed, funded and implemented, each example offers ideas on how to start a laptop program or modify an existing one and better prepare students for a high-tech, high-paced world.

Getting Community Buy-In

Not every program gets off to a flying start, and the decision to give laptops to teachers in the Issaquah (Wash.) School District faced skepticism from the district's community. Two levies to fund a teacher laptop program were rejected by voters. When the district tweaked the initiative to include a healthy dose of training, the community reconsidered and gave its approval.

In this voluntary program, teachers attend a five-day intensive summer session, then three additional weekend conferences during the school year. In exchange for their participation, they receive a Dell laptop computer with wireless capability for as long as they remain employed with the district, says Colleen Dixon, director of educational technology at the K-12 district.

So far, 217 teachers have completed the training. She says the program's annual cost has reached $1 million.

"[The professional development] was the big selling point for the last technology levy," Dixon says, adding that almost 25 percent of the tax revenues were allocated for teacher training. "You need to have solid training behind how to use the technology in the curriculum."

The laptops come with a three-year, full care warranty. Lost or stolen computers are replaced with older models at no cost to the teachers. Repairs are made on-site by the district's two technicians or a technology specialist housed at each school and usually returned within 48 hours. Dixon says she hopes to replace the laptops with newer models every four years.

Meanwhile, participating teachers also receive a desktop computer in their classroom for every four students. Other teachers receive desktops as well, but at a lower ratio.

"Our philosophy has been that just dumping hardware in classrooms doesn't do anything," she says. "The community has been very supportive since the training is tied to the hardware."

Voluntary Program Grows

Liverpool Central School District learned a quick lesson when it started a laptop program about six years ago. The district sought to get computers into the hands of all its sophomores and juniors, so it created a program to offer laptops at a discount to families. The hang-up? The district made it mandatory and the $900 price tag "went over like a lead balloon," says Bonnie Ladd, director of technology at the K-12 district.

But the district overcame the bumpy start, made the program voluntary and has since seen participation grow from half the students to about 80 percent, Ladd says. The program started six years ago, when Liverpool began working with the Board of Cooperative Educational Services, a statewide group, to create an affordable laptop program that would not rely on tax revenues.

BOCES achieves economies of scale by leasing IBM Thinkpads for districts throughout the state. While Liverpool pays BOCES a monthly fee to perform all the legwork, the state DOE reimburses the district almost 60 percent of those fees.

Ladd says parents are then asked to pay the difference, which she estimates is $900 per machine. While some parents take out a loan and pay $25 a month for four years, low-income families pay between $5 and $15 each month, she says, explaining that the district's foundation--the Liverpool Independent Foundation for Excellence--covers the difference. The laptop is paid for by the time students graduate, she adds. At that point, students can keep the laptop or donate it to the school's loaner program.

The self-insured district only covers computers that are lost or stolen on school property. It supports an in-house staff of four technicians dedicated to the program. High school students can even access an on-site help desk, called Room 500. Likewise, a techie from BOCE also works on-site three days a week.

Although training isn't mandatory, the district offered classes to students in October on the care and feeding of their laptop, says Ladd, which was successful. Incoming sophomores can also attend a series of introductory, half-hour workshops in the fall that are taught by the district's technical staff.

While every teacher receives a laptop at no cost, she says the district's instructional committee offers best practices on combining technology with instruction. For instance, French teacher Sharon Vowles creates much of her upper level coursework herself, and she incorporates directions in French, in her voice, with her online handouts or quizzes.

"We continue to look at the best ways to integrate technology, to make sure that it's not the end-all, be-all," Ladd says. "Instruction comes first."

Trading Desktops for Laptops

In November, this district gave each high school student--one per family--a laptop to be used during the school year for $50, says Ben Tantillo, the district's superintendent. The district has two high schools, totalling about 1,800 students. (The fee covers insurance in case of loss or theft.) The Sony Vaios are loaded with Office 2003, educational software, dictionaries, Peterson's SAT course--for just sophomore and juniors--virus protection and tracking software that can locate them if they are lost or stolen.

"The entire program is costing us about $2.6 million over four years," he says, adding that Sony included extended life batteries--which last up to 11 hours--in the deal. Accidental damage is covered under the service contract with Sony.

To partially fund the program, the district returned the majority of its 800 leased desktops, then leased the laptops for four years. Because Sony gave the district a significant price break, the financial exchange was fairly even, Tantillo says. The biggest cost increase was expanding professional development for about 200 teachers and administrators, who also got laptops. In all, about 2,000 laptops were handed out.

The teacher training is the key to the program, he adds. About three-quarters of the district's teachers attended a four-day training program at the end of summer while others participated in two one-day courses before school started. On Columbus Day and monthly, teachers attend half-day programs.

Students, however, didn't require much training. The superintendent says all they needed was a one-day crash course. When students graduate, they return the computers, and the machines are given to incoming freshmen.

"We did a lot of investigating beforehand, contacting people all over the country who are doing this," Tantillo says. "We learned from their mistakes just as people will learn from our mistakes."

Getting Parents Involved

Often, the biggest hurdle to starting any significant laptop program is its cost. This district sidesteps that problem by shifting the burden to students' families. Simply put, those who can afford a laptop, with some help from the district, get one. Those who can't, and that's about half the students in grades 6-12, use school computers.

Each spring, parents can purchase IBM Thinkpads for students at roughly the same rate the district pays, which is about $1,000 and they receive a three-year warranty, explains Chuck Philips, Clovis' administrator of technology services.

"The actual purchase is between IBM and our value-added resaler--Compuwave," he says. "The district does not get involved in the purchasing process. We work with three different financial institutions in the area who offer parents [loan] rates at prime plus one-half percent, which is about $35 per month over three years."

Up to now, 10,000 students have purchased laptops. The computers are loaded with Microsoft Office Pro, a CD-ROM and the district's antivirus program. This spring, the district will become an IBM service provider by offering all warranty repairs in-house. Philips says IBM will pay the district directly for repair work.

The district does pay for each of its 1,653 teachers to get laptops, and it turns over these machines every three years.

Teachers incorporate technology into classes by having students create multimedia work, and use e-mail to exchange information with students at other schools. Those without laptops can use computers at a media center or in a computer lab.

A handful can also receive a loaner for the school year--at no cost--or share a classroom computer with other students.

"This is primarily a parent-funded program," he says. "We tell [parents] that if they don't go to the movies once a month, they've got their computer paid for."

Slow, But Steady, Growth

This rural district started small, getting 17 laptops through a $35,000 federal grant, but through the years has built its program to a million-dollar level where 600 new students get laptops each year.

This K-12 school district, which serves six towns in a 350-mile radius, has leveraged that original grant into numerous federal, state and even corporate grants to expand and operate its laptop program, says Crystal Priest, technology coordinator for the rural district. As an example, she points to a local employer that donated $100,000 in 2000 over a two-year span.

So far, the district has paid $250,000 of the program's cost, which has exceeded $1 million, she says. At the beginning of each school year, about 600 students receive Apple iBooks. The only cost they may incur is an optional $30 to $50 insurance fee, depending upon if they're enrolled in a reduced or free lunch program.

"[Parents] can also add the machine to their homeowner's insurance," Priest says, explaining that parents still sign a document accepting full responsibility for the computer.

While insurance is voluntary, training isn't. Students must attend a one-day course while those in grades 4-8 must also complete a computer applications class. Each laptop includes Apple's standard software and a wide variety of programs ranging from Microsoft Office to Dreamweaver for high school students. Although they can take the computers home, middle grade students can only do so on a limited basis--when their homework demands it.

The $1,200 machines are covered under Apple's three-year warranty. Either the district's manufacturing technology teacher at the high school--who is certified by Apple--or students in his electronics and trouble-shooting course, make repairs in-house. On average, Priest says, about eight major repairs are needed each year.

"We've managed to do this on a shoestring budget, shifting monies from here to there," says the tech coordinator, adding that all 70 teachers in the district were also issued laptops at no cost. "There's no reason why schools shouldn't be using technology in their curriculum."

Carol Patton is a freelance writer from Las Vegas.