More students getting laptops instead of textbooks

With the help of funding for schools affected by Hurricane Katrina and reward money for rising test scores, a Louisiana high school this fall will become one of the first in the state to dump textbooks in favor of laptop computers and an all-digital curriculum.

Students at Bolton High School, part of the Rapides Parish school system, won’t be carrying around textbooks and paper notebooks, but instead will have laptop computers as part of the parish’s first Digital Academy.

“This is on the cutting edge, not only for our parish but also the state,” Bolton High School Principal Bill Higgins said. “This is the wave of the future.”

Students in Bolton‘s gifted program, plus all 11th-graders and the majority of its seniors, won’t be issued textbooks but will be given an Apple iMac computer on the first day of school. The students will be allowed to take the computers home.

“We are immersing the curriculum in technology,” Higgins said.

Bolton High has two technology facilitators who are taking 30 of the laptop computers to various classes, giving students a taste of what they will experience next year.

Barbara Gourgues recently had the mobile lab and facilitators in her civics class. She said the students loved using the computers.

The school is using two grants and state reward money to pay for the new program. It received 160 laptop computers from the Virtue Foundation, which has helped schools affected by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita and has given out 600 computers across the state, school officials said. A Louisiana High Tech grant, as well as money the school expects to receive because of growth in its school performance score, also will help fund the Digital Academy.

To prepare for the Digital Academy, Bolton High will become wireless so students can receive internet service as far out as the football field, Higgins said.

The school is converting an old typing classroom into an internet cafe that will be open later in the afternoon, so students who do not have internet access at home can get work and studying done. In addition, the students will be able to use “hot spots” throughout the community to get online.

The online curriculum is in the planning stages, and officials say the project gives the school a chance to update its curriculum.

Higgins said teachers will be able to grade assignments and return the graded material online. Students can turn in work online, and classes will be able to include such activities as online experiments.

Teachers in the Digital Academy will receive laptop computers and projectors for their classrooms. The computers will be maintained and repaired on campus, so that if a student has a problem with one, he or she will simply turn it in and be issued another.

In going all-digital, Bolton High School will follow the lead of pioneering institutions such as Arizona‘s Empire High School, part of the Vail School District, which dumped textbook in favor of laptops in 2005.

According to district technology coordinator Matt Federoff, Empire’s program has enjoyed such success that state education officials are working to replicate it in seven additional schools.

Every student and teacher at Empire receives a laptop loaded with several electronic resources. Rather than mandate how and when teachers should use the technology, educators are free to leverage it as they see fit.

“As long as you teach the standards, we really don’t care how you get there,” said Federoff, who noted that one of the chief complaints under No Child Left Behind is that increased accountability has stifled classroom innovation. “We’re giving that freedom back to teachers,” he said.

To make educators comfortable with these new resources, Federoff said, one of the most important decisions Empire made was to give teachers paid time before the school opened to experiment with the technology in groups, trading best practices and devising appropriate lessons.

Schools typically overlay computers onto their instruction “like frosting on the cake,” said Vail Superintendent Calvin Baker, a 2006 winner of eSchool News‘ Tech-Savvy Superintendent Award. “We decided that the real opportunity was to make the laptops the key ingredient of the cake … to truly change the way that schools operated.”

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