In a case that demonstrates the demand for equitable computer access in public schools, a program asking parents at a Palo Alto, Calif., middle school to buy $2,000 laptops for their sixth-graders has been put on hold.

The Jordan Middle School laptop program was suspended Nov. 2 after several parents complained it wasn’t fair to families that can’t afford the computers.

“The pause will allow for a re-evaluation of the program,” said Bob Golton, acting superintendent of schools for Palo Alto, who plans to have an advisory group study the program before moving ahead with it.

Last spring, 51 sixth-graders at Jordan participated in the then-pilot program. Using borrowed laptops, students typed their notes in class, then accessed them at home for their homework. With a wireless connection, they could conduct research from class, at the library, or at a park.

In the end, 92 percent of the students felt the quality of their schoolwork improved, and 80 percent of the parents said they would recommend the program to other families.

It was because of these successes that Jordan officials chose to move ahead with the program, despite the inequities, said Marie Scigliano, director of technology for the Palo Alto schools. “The momentum was there,” she said.

But parent Steve Weinstein, who started an eMail campaign to halt the laptop program, said the school district didn’t adequately consider the inequities involved in its proposal.

“Hopefully, they can turn this elitist program into one that the rest of Palo Alto can afford,” Weinstein said.

In mid-October, more than 300 parents got a letter from the school’s principal and the district’s technology director asking them to buy Apple iBook laptops with wireless internet access as part of the school’s new technology program.

Both the letter and school staff said the purchase was optional, but enrollment in the program—which also was to rely heavily on a bank of school-purchased laptops that would be kept at school—was not.

“An optional program is never really optional,” said Weinstein. “There are a lot of people who don’t have $2,000 to spend, but they are going to be forced into it because it’s the Palo Alto way: ‘My kid might be disadvantaged if he’s four steps behind, so I’ve got to do what is necessary.'”

Informational meetings were held in late October at the school’s library and at the Apple retail store on nearby University Avenue.

“They need to open their eyes that not everyone in Palo Alto is loaded,” said Kathryn Varda, the mother of sixth-grade twins enrolled at Jordan. “There’s no way I could afford to shell out four grand right now. But do you really want your child to be the one who is hanging back and watching everyone else use a computer?”

School officials said that when the program was announced, 35 percent of parents said they would not be buying an iBook, but 25 percent say they would buy one. The rest were unsure.

The district still plans to move ahead with the purchase of 100 laptops, which will be divided among three Palo Alto middle schools and will be used by sixth-graders. Just the purchase plan for individual students is on hold.

Among Jordan’s computer-savvy kids, there is little sense of urgency in resolving the issue.

“I think it’s kind of cool, but I don’t want one,” said Gracie Varda, a sixth-grader whose parents won’t be buying a laptop for either her or her twin brother, Laurence. “It’s a public school, and if they are going to have it, they should have one for everyone.”

In the past few years, schools around the country have moved to replace bulkier desktop computers with laptops as a way to give students “anytime, anywhere” access to instruction.

In one of the largest proposed laptop purchases for education, Maine Governor Angus King announced last year that every seventh-grader in the state—roughly 17,000 students—would receive a laptop next fall. King’s proposal subsequently ran into legislative opposition and, at press time, economic conditions put the program’s implementation in doubt.

The situation in Palo Alto is not the first time controversy over equitable access to the technology has surfaced.

In 1998, eSchool News reported that middle school parents in Beaufort County, S.C., objected to Microsoftís Anytime, Anywhere Learning program because it raised issues of inequality.

Beaufort County was one of 30 districts nationwide that piloted the Anytime, Anywhere Learning program four years ago.

The program was launched in Beaufort County middle schools on a voluntary basis, drawing 330 sixth-graders from three schools in its first year. Students’ families were responsible for the cost of the machines; they could buy them outright or lease them for three years at a cost of $60 per month.

To ensure that all students could participate, regardless of their families’ income, the district established the nonprofit SchoolBook Foundation. Run entirely by volunteers, the foundation issued subsidies to needy families based on their participation in the school lunch program. Students who qualified for free or reduced-price lunches would have to pay only $15 per month to participate, and the foundation would pay the difference.

By 1998, the number of participants in the program had swelled to nearly 2,000 sixth- through eighth-graders. But the rapid growth in the program’s popularity created challenges the district hadn’t foreseen. The SchoolBook Foundation could afford to subsidize only 300 students, leaving the district scrambling to find other means of supporting the program for its low-income students.

Barbara Catenaci, who oversees the district’s community development programs, said the SchoolBook Foundation held a lottery to determine which families would receive subsidies.

“A lot of parents felt left out,” Catenaci said. “Then it became a question of getting those parents into the right financing program.”

Related links:
Palo Alto Unified School District
http://www.pausd.palo-alto.ca.us/home.html

Apple Computer Inc.
http://www.apple.com

Anytime, Anywhere Learning program
http://www.microsoft.com/education/default.asp?ID=LaptopLearning