Eighth-grade students at a middle school in Guilford, Maine, who use wireless laptops on a daily basis say getting used to mobile computers is senseless, because the local high school doesn’t have them.

“It makes me feel important—like a guinea pig—to see how the laptops work out, but it seems kind of pointless,” student Jared Pingree of Piscataquis Community Middle School told the Bangor Daily News.

Guilford is finding out what happens when a community’s technology resources aren’t distributed equally among its schools. The town’s situation mirrors that of other communities across the country, as tight school budgets and targeted grants leave disparities in access from one school to the next.

The students from Piscataquis Community Middle School have only had access to the wireless laptops since the start of this school year, but already students don’t want to part with them.

After receiving a donation from a local company and government grants, the school purchased Apple iBooks equipped with wireless networking capabilities for student and teacher use.

“The whole proposal that we’re working with is actually driven by a local company, Guilford of Maine,” said William Hume, chairman of the Piscataquis Community School Board.

The textile company, trying to be more involved in the community, offered the middle school $100,000 over two years to purchase laptops, like Gov. Angus King had proposed to do throughout the state.

“The governor wanted [the laptop program to start] in the seventh and eighth grades,” Hume said, so that’s why Guilford started its own laptop program in the middle school. “It’s a good place to start because the kids at that age are so computer literate.”

Realizing $100,000 over two years wouldn’t go very far, the district matched the donation with federal funding.

“We’re spending about $100,000 per year to buy iBooks. Our goal is to have one for every student,” said Greg Bellemare, principal of Piscataquis Community Middle School. Bellemare and other officials decided to buy iBooks because the school already had acquired 17 iBooks the year before.

Since September, all seventh and eighth-graders, a portion of the fifth and sixth-graders, and all teachers use the school’s 117 laptops. Eventually, the school plans to have enough for its entire 270-student population.

But the eighth-graders—who are quickly becoming accustomed to the flexiblity and convenience allowed by mobile computing—feel they’ll be taking a step backwards when they go to Piscataquis Community High School, even though the high school is well-equipped with desktop computers.

According to Kevin Jordan, assistant principal of Piscataquis Community High School, the school has about 330 kids and 150 desktop PCs.

The computers are “not as convenient as a laptop, but [they’re] certainly there,” Jordan said. “[Students] may have to get used to doing things the old-fashioned way—and by that I mean on a desktop computer.”

School officials do recognize the students’ concern, and it’s something they’ve discussed. “It’s like giving a kid a bicycle, but then not replacing it when they outgrow it,” Jordan said. Now that students are used to the laptops, he said, it’s going to be hard to live without them.

The school board intends eventually to provide every student in the district, in every grade, with a laptop.

Hume said when the laptop program was first proposed to the board, members understood that “by carrying forth with this program, it would commit the board to expanding [the program] not only to the high school, but back through to the elementary school.”

But that’s not likely to happen before these laptop-savvy eighth-graders start grade nine.

“We have [the rest of the school year] to figure out what we are going to do,” Jordan said. Money is the main obstacle. “We don’t want to burden the taxpayers any more than we have to. In rural Maine, we’re not blessed with huge tax revenue.”

Instead of having students’ families pay a portion of the cost, like some schools do, the board decided it would cover the entire cost of the iBooks.

“We don’t want to leave kids out,” Bellemare said. “Our per capita income is not that high.”

Since the school has full responsibility for the laptops, students can’t take them home. “We felt … to make sure [the program] is successful, we need to keep track of the computers,” Bellemare said. “It’s an expensive book.”

Piscataquis Community Middle School

http://www.sad4.com/schools/pcms.html

Piscataquis Community High School

http://www.sad4.com/schools/pchs.html