Laptop Pilot

Laptop pilot program engages students like never before
Posted on 11/02/2012

When school board member Alana Robertson began as a teacher at Poplar Bluff Schools over three decades ago, there was not a single computer in the building let alone her classroom, the retired educator recalled.

In recent weeks, 100 MacBook Airs were distributed to students at Junior High as part of a pilot program through which the laptops are being rotated in each of the classrooms for two-week periods.

Eighth grader Montana Kelley was able to submit her character analysis of Ichabod Crane to the entire honors English class for real-time feedback using Edmodo, a social learning network, and she said she enjoyed writing for the larger audience, as opposed to just her teacher.

“I’ve always been interested in incorporating technology in the classroom,” said Kathy Beck, Junior High social studies department chair. “I was one of the first in the building to use PowerPoint” about a decade ago, “and I immediately noticed students’ scores go up.”

The ultimate goal of the digital transformation is to get a computer in the hands of every Junior and Senior High student by the 2014/15 school year.

The initiative was conceived when Superintendent Chris Hon began reading in education digests about how Mooresville Graded School District in North Carolina provided a laptop to all fourth grade students and up in recent years, and has since seen their academic achievement increase significantly, while disciplinary matters decline.

Hon and Assistant Superintendent of Finance Rod Priest first met Mooresville Superintendent Dr. Mark Edwards, the pioneer of the one-to-one laptop initiative, during the Missouri Association of School Administrators conference in March at Lake Ozark.

In August, a group of Poplar Bluff school officials visited the East Coast school for professional development and to see firsthand how teachers are engaging students with the Macs in the class setting.

“There’s nothing that I saw that we couldn’t do, and do better,” said eighth grade science teacher Jennifer Nicolini, who was among the dozen who took the second 11-hour road trip last month to visit what has now been dubbed a lighthouse district in terms of school technology.

“I’m absolutely all for it,” stated Robertson, who was also part of the caravan. If approved by the board in the spring, the timeline will be to issue 800 laptops to seventh and eighth graders next year and 1,300 to high school students by August 2014, along with all licensed staff who have already been receiving software training.

Each student would be supplied a special backpack to protect the laptop, which they will be allowed to bring home. Additional insurance policies will be offered for parents to take out on the devices. There would likely be a $50 laptop usage fee, with payment plans or school service options available.

“There’s such a gap in terms of computer access at home, some students bring in projects that look like they came straight out of a print shop, while others use paper and crayons,” Nicolini said. Beck added: “This’ll close the distance between the haves and have-nots.”

School officials are exploring additional funding options for the technology upgrade including applying for a $10 million Race to the Top Grant through the United States Department of Education, with hopes of eventually realizing some savings by purchasing fewer textbooks.

“I am thoroughly excited about this program and glad to see Poplar Bluff R-I be proactive on any issue that deals with technology,” said Greater Poplar Bluff Area Chamber of Commerce President Steve Halter, who learned about the digital transformation Oct. 18 during a local Kiwanis Club meeting. “I think this will help give our students a competitive edge.”

Wireless infrastructure is currently being installed at the school facilities. The district plans to double its MOREnet broadband to 100 megabits by July 1, according to Jim Thomas, director of media services. “We amass all these tools to acquire information quickly, yet we ask students to check their computers at the front door of the school building,” he pointed out.

During a technology update at the last board meeting, Thomas explained how the writing slate was introduced in the classroom a century ago and students were excited to go to school to use chalk. Fifty years ago, the 16 mm projector was proven to engage students during an audiovisual revolution. The advent of the desktop computer was thirty years ago, he continued, and today there is wireless technology available in more and more places.

“This is where education is heading,” stated Hon, who has 26 years of experience in the field. “Every year we wait to do this, we’re depriving a set of students from gaining the skills necessary in the 21st century.”

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Cutline: Junior High student Tim Powell (black and blue striped shirt) prepares to send a graph that he produced on his laptop to be graded by his pre-algebra teacher Shawn Pyland.

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