Seventh-graders in up to five New Hampshire schools will get laptop computers next year as part of a new pilot program to improve learning, Gov. Craig Benson said Sept. 2.

Benson said 19 school districts are being invited to submit proposals, and up to five of them will be chosen to get laptops and wireless connections for their seventh-graders and their teachers.

Winning schools must show a passion and commitment to using the laptops in innovative ways, he said. A panel of businesses, teachers, and Benson himself will pick the winners in early November. The computers will be distributed in January.

Benson is raising the money for the four-year project through corporate donations. So far, Anthem, BAE Systems, Citizens Bank, Fidelity, Fleet Bank, FPL Group, Verizon Communications, Waste Management Inc., and Cigna Healthcare have contributed about half the $1.2 million estimated cost.

The governor, who co-founded the now-defunct Cabletron computer networking company, said the project will combine computer technology with traditional learning to promote excellence.

Benson’s program is a modest version of one begun by Maine last year. Maine gave laptops to 17,000 seventh-graders and 3,000 teachers in all the state’s public middle schools.

Maine considers the program a success and this year will expand it to eighth-graders for a total of 33,000 laptops in use, despite a projected budget shortfall.

Absences, tardiness, and disciplinary trips to the principal dropped significantly in one Maine school with the laptops, Benson said.

“If that doesn’t tell you this works, nothing else will,” he said.

Benson said no decision has been made whether the seventh-graders will be allowed to take the laptops home–as some Maine schools now allow. Once the school year is done, the computers will remain in the classroom and not move on to eighth grade with the student, he said.

“This way we whet their appetite for learning,” said Benson.

School districts picked to apply in New Hampshire are in towns with high property tax rates and whose sixth-graders did poorly on the state assessment test, he said.

The 19 school districts are: Mascenic Regional; Allenstown; Colebrook; Franklin; Monadnock Regional; Winnisquam Regional; Farmington; Mascoma Valley Regional; Somersworth; Haverhill Cooperative (Warren, Orford, Haverhill, and Bath); Wilton-Lyndeborough; Lisbon; Stratford; Milton; Wakefield; Andover; Hillsboro-Deering; Weare; and Thornton.