Putting a computer on the lap of every student might sound like a dream to most schools. But it’s happening in one southern Florida school, where internet-ready notebook computers are becoming as prevalent as spiral notebooks in the standard student backpack.

In a pilot program that launched last fall, each of North Broward Preparatory School’s 252 sixth-to-ninth grade students are receiving a StudyPro notebook computer to use in class and at home. It’s part of the NetSchools program, a “total solution” package that includes the portable computers, school wiring, infrared service, internet access, teacher training, and integrated curriculum.

The notebook computers connects to the high school’s high-speed local area network (LAN) server with an infrared passive aiming system in the classroom. The server provided by NetSchools is a Symmetrical Multiprocessor computer running on Microsoft Windows NT Server 4.0. NetSchools even sends technicians to install the server and wire buildings.

The lure of technology

The prospect of leading a school where students and teachers were immersed in technology was the lure that reeled Principal Dennis Brown back in to school administration.

Brown, a 20-year veteran principal, had been spending the past year traveling the country to talk about how technology could transform education. He was able to convince North Broward to promise a 1-1 student-to-computer ratio as a condition of his accepting the headmaster position.

“I wouldn’t be back in business if it wasn’t for this,” said Brown.

NetSchools integrates the StudyPro computers and 24-hour access to the internet with the Academic Information System (AIS), which assists teachers in monitoring student progress and using the internet as part of the daily curriculum.

The notebook computers will be students’ to use until the end of the school year. The students have had some experience working with desktop PCs in the computer lab since last fall, Brown said.

In two classrooms, the notebooks have been fully integrated into the curriculum. These classes‹biology and social studies‹have been used as demonstration classrooms for other teachers in the building. Brown hopes to expand the number of teachers using the computers in their classes next year.

“Hidden gem”

Teachers at North Broward have been receiving training since last August in using the AIS management software. AIS is “the hidden gem” of the program, according to Brown. AIS allows teachers to automatically upload student work from their individual notebook computers and store the documents in student folders on the server.

NetSchools also provides teachers with a select list of web sites that are appropriate for their class curriculum. The response, Brown said, has been overwhelmingly positive from teachers.

Brown said NetSchools will continue to support North Broward with on-site professional development and student and parent training throughout the school year. By the end of the year, every student and teacher will have at least one class that fully integrates the notebook computers. Brown expects this number will grow as teachers get more comfortable with the technology.

The notebooks run on a proprietary operating system (built just for the machine) and come bundled with software that lets students design and format web pages, browse the web, and use eMail. The Microsoft Works bundle lets students use word processing, database, and spreadsheet tools.

The notebook computers can also access the internet from home via a built-in modem. Parents will have a private eMail account that will enable them to more easily communicate with teachers. For many parents, Brown said, the notebook computers will introduce home web access.

At a cost of a couple of thousand dollars per student, Brown said, “this is one of the most cost-effective projects we’ve got.” Pricing is based on the schools’ needs, said a company representative.

Six hundred students currently are enrolled at the two North Broward campuses, serving the southern Florida counties of Palm Beach.

NetSchools is headquartered in Mountain View, Calif., with regional offices in Massachusetts, Texas, Florida, Georgia, Alabama, Kansas, Kentucky, and Utah.

North Broward Preparatory School