It’s been a bad-news and better-news couple of weeks for executives at Apple Computer.

First Apple’s ed-tech nemesis, Dell, wrested away a major contract with a high-profile school division in Virginia; then Apple got a solid win in Georgia, but at a sharply lower initial threshold than had originally been envisioned.

On May 2, the Cupertino, Calif.-based computer-maker announced final approval of a contract that will supply more than 17,000 iBook G4 laptops to students at four pilot high schools in and every teacher within Georgia’s Cobb County School District.

If all goes as planned, by 2006, the three-part project called, “Power-to-Learn,” could provide as many as 63,000 machines to every middle and high school student in the school system, making it the largest student laptop venture in the nation. But the local school board on Monday approved only the first phase of the program.

“The Power to Learn program represents a giant step forward for education in Cobb County,” said district Superintendent Joseph Redden after the official contract was signed.

That development in Georgia also marked a step forward for Apple, which late last month suffered a major setback when school board officials for Virginia’s Henrico County Public Schools (HCPS) parted ways with the company and agreed instead to purchase machines from one of its fiercest competitors.

Citing reasons ranging from maintenance and technical support to software and price, school division officials inked a new four-year agreement with Round Rock, Texas-based Dell, bringing to an end HCPS’s one-to-one initiative with Apple, which began in 2001.

Four years ago, HCPS hooked up with Apple to deploy more than 23,000 laptops to every middle and high school student in the system. The deal, part of a four-year lease program with the company, had an estimated cost of $18.5 million during the first two years and became one of the most publicized and closely watched one-to-one computing initiatives in the country. (See “Laptops to transform learning for 23,000 Virginia students.“)

Though the project endured a number of growing pains–especially during its first year, as administrators struggled to update antiquated security policies and equip the network infrastructure for the transition–the program has become something of a blueprint for ambitious districts and even a couple of states (Maine and Michigan) seeking to pursue similar projects.

Henrico’s five-member school board voted unanimously at its April 28 meeting to make the switch to Dell.

When asked to explain the decision, HCPS Superintendent Fred Morton, said he received feedback from hundreds of teachers, students, staff, parents, and community members addressing the challenges presented by the current laptop program. Those concerns included reported maintenance issues, additional fees for students and teachers, and the desire for Microsoft Office. The Apple machines ran AppleWorks.

“The board charged me with creating an RFP (Request for Proposals) containing all of our issues,” said Morton, who assumed the division’s top spot in the fall after taking over for recently departed superintendent Mark Edwards. Edwards was the point-man on the initial one-to-one laptop initiative with Apple and was widely known for his work in Henrico.

According to documents on the school division’s web site, seven companies attended the school division’s pre-proposal conference. Ultimately, three companies submitted proposals–Dell, Apple, and CDW-G.

A nine-member evaluation committee made up of teachers, principals, and administrators studied the three proposals and unanimously voted to recommend Dell’s proposal.

“I think it says a lot that the committee’s recommendation was 9-0 and the board’s vote was 5-0,” Morton said. “Unanimous decisions are pretty unusual.” Morton did not have a vote in the decision.

Dell’s proposal includes 15,800 laptops for $17.8 million during the next four years. The per-unit price for the laptops is $1,130. Apple’s proposal was $1,386 per iBook, according to the Henrico web site.

Morton said price was not the only reason behind his and the committee’s recommendation. “It was a number of variables, not one single thing.” But, he added that Apple’s proposal was about $4 million more than Dell’s.

Loaners and software fees were another reason for the new contract. The $50 teacher fee and $100 student deductible for damage were eliminated, although the $50 student fee will remain, HCPS officials said.

Lloyd Brown, director of technology for HCPS, explained the features of the new Dell Inspiron 600M laptop. The screen is 14 inches compared to the iBook’s 12-inch screen. It has two USB ports and a track pad for moving the mouse. The Dell machines will use a Windows XP operating system.

Brown also addressed the question of security–namely, how to prevent students from accessing inappropriate web sites. He said the school division would continue to maintain the most up-to-date filters and security measures. “The type of laptop does not have anything to do with security–it’s your filters,” Brown explained. “Therefore, security will be a challenge with any product.”

The superintendent said he’s “committed to honoring the work that teachers have already done and to creating a smooth transition to the new platform.”

Reached by phone, Dell spokesman Dean Kline said that although no two technology projects are the same, he hopes the deal will address the division’s concerns. “Our job is to come up with the right plan for the right customer,” he said, adding that Dell’s presence in Henrico is a testament to its “commitment to innovation” as well as technology’s role in improving teaching and learning.

After laying out the details, Morton assured those who attended the board meeting and the subsequent news conference that the transition from Apple to Dell at the high school level would be smooth. “We’re going to be thoughtful about this. This is not a race that has to be completed by Sept. 1; this is a journey. We want teachers to tell us where to start this transition, and we want to make it safe for teachers to tell us about any problems.”

Apple did not respond to eSchool News calls for reaction to the Henrico decision by press time, but company officials have been aggressively promoting one-to-one initiatives in other parts of the country, especially in Georgia, where executives believe they are poised to make history.

“We’re thrilled to work with Cobb County public schools on this landmark one-to-one initiative,” said Timothy Cook, Apple’s executive vice president of worldwide sales and operations following the contract’s approval. “School districts across the country have improved student achievement with the help of Apple’s one-to-one solutions, and this ambitious project will give Cobb County students a tremendous academic advantage.”

Links:

Apple Computer
http://www.apple.com

Dell
http://www.dell.com

Henrico County Public Schools
http://www.henrico.k12.va.us/

Cobb County School District
http://www.cobb.k12.ga.us/