Before cracking open their textbooks, students in Billie Anthony’s talented and gifted class at Carmen Arace Middle School in Bloomfield, Conn., crack open their laptop computers and check eMail.

After reading their electronic messages and assignments, the seventh-graders get to work, doing research on classroom projects ranging from a panel discussion on Cambodia to a debate on abortion.

The work going on in Bloomfield is a preview of a much larger experiment proposed by Maine Gov. Angus King, who wants to equip each of the 17,000 seventh-graders in his state with a laptop.

“This isn’t a frill,” King said in proposing the program. “This is essential … this is where the country’s going.”

At Carmen Arace, each of the 80 staff members and the 885 students in grades five through eight is equipped with a personal computer. They use it for research and assignments throughout the day.

The students’ laptops are 7.4-pound “kid-proof” machines enclosed in a magnesium case with rubber bumpers, said Jerry Crystal, Carmen Arace’s director of technology integration.

Students pay $60 a year for insurance (which has a $100 deductible) and are encouraged to take the laptops home every night for recharging.

A few years ago, standardized test scores at Carmen Arace were below average, discipline problems were daily occurrences, and parents who could afford it were sending their kids to private schools, said Principal Delores Bolton.

“This was not a building that was well-loved by the town at the time,” said Jean Gilmore, the district’s business manager and director of technology. “Now, it’s our flagship school.”

Enrollment is up 175 students from four years ago. Suspension days dropped from 512 in the 1996-’97 school year to 124 the following year. The number of eighth-graders meeting goals on a statewide reading exam increased from 40 percent in 1995 to 65 percent in 1998.

The laptops, school officials say, are partially responsible.

“This is a communication revolution, and we are right on the crest,” Anthony said. “It’s the most stimulating milieu I’ve ever worked in. When you have a stimulated teacher, you have stimulated students, excited about learning.”

Bloomfield school officials plan to spend another $100,000 on computers for the school’s growing population, Gilmore said. Officials are waiting on a federal grant to offset the $1.2 million cost of providing Bloomfield’s high school freshmen and sophomores with laptops.

Maine legislators were lukewarm to King’s idea, which—unlike the Bloomfield program—would give children the computers to keep, beginning in 2002. But lawmakers have agreed to study the idea.

In Connecticut, Carmen Arace is among the first schools to use laptops for learning. A smaller program is in place in two of the three middle schools in Greenwich, said Susan Wallerstein, the district’s coordinator for media and technology.

The Bloomfield students were equipped through NetSchools, an Atlanta-based company founded by two former IBM executives. The company provides the laptops, as well as six months of teacher training, in-school repairs, and long-term instructional support.

The major computer companies—Dell, Compaq, Gateway, Acer, IBM, Apple, and others—also have laptop learning programs.

Bloomfield officials happened upon information about NetSchools while applying for a federal technology grant in 1997. Bolton approved the proposal after seeing only a picture of a plastic prototype computer.

“Once I was presented with the idea, I started dreaming in Technicolor,” the principal said. “I could imagine my school, which is 90 percent black, being on the cutting edge of technology.”

Leaders at the school district backed the program. In October 1997, they authorized spending more than $2.5 million on the project.

But Bloomfield school officials concede they need more parental participation. Although the school sends out a weekly online newsletter, training sessions for parents were called off because of lack of interest.

The laptops also present educators with ethical and moral dilemmas they’ve never before faced, Crystal said. The school has had to create an “acceptable use policy.”

But Crystal sees it as worthwhile in the end, because the laptops are “creating a whole new type of school here.”

In all, about 12,000 students in 36 schools across the country are using NetSchools’ laptops, according to company representative Ginny Williams.

More than 7,000 of them are in the predominantly Hispanic Ysleta Independent School District in El Paso, Texas, said Manny Soto, associate superintendent for instruction. By 2003, Soto said, 22,000 of the urban school district’s 47,000 students will have laptops.

“If we’re setting our kids up for success in today’s technological world, we have to end the access question,” Soto said.

Kenneth Stevenson, a professor in the University of South Carolina’s department of educational leadership and policies, also is a firsthand witness of the laptop effect.

“Students who traditionally have not been successful are really benefiting from the technology,” he said. “For some reason, they connect with it and it connects with them.”

In addition to making learning exciting, Stevenson said, computers provide a way to individualize education and help those who struggle with getting words down on paper.

But Clifford Stoll, an Oakland, Calif.-based astronomer and author of “High Tech Heretic: Why Computers Don’t Belong in the Classroom and Other Reflections of a Computer Contrarian,” maintains that computers “get in the way of an education. If you want children to read books, why do we point them to laptop screens?” he said.

Another naysayer, William L. Rukeyser, questions the overemphasis of school dollars spent on technology.

“The ongoing costs of education technology are truly staggering,” said Rukeyser, the coordinator of Learning in the Real World, a nonprofit information clearinghouse in Woodland, Calif. “Most school districts don’t have that type of money available.”

Back in Bloomfield, some of Anthony’s seventh-grade students said they enjoy learning on laptops—and showing them off to their peers at other schools.

“You feel kind of out of the ordinary because you have a laptop,” said 12-year-old Lindsay Fetzner.

Although it can take as long as two weeks to get a broken laptop repaired, Caitlin Gilbert, 12, said she doesn’t always mind the wait.

“My bookbag is a lot lighter,” she said.

Carmen Arace Middle School

NetSchools Corp.

Ysleta Independent School District

Learning in the Real World