Laptops lend a hand

Posted: Friday, March 14, 2008

Kayla Ryan is gaining a high school diploma Friday but losing a laptop.

Brian Wallace / Juneau Empire
Brian Wallace / Juneau Empire

Since she will no longer be a student, Ryan has to give her computer back to the school.

"I wish I could buy it," Ryan said.

Ryan is one of about a dozen students graduating this week from Yaakoosgé Daakahídi, the Juneau School District's alternative high school that assigns a laptop computer to each of its roughly 150 students.

Students at Yaakoosgé started receiving Apple laptops about a year and a half ago as part of a statewide pilot program.

Yaakoosgé Principal Laury Scandling said she was initially skeptical of how effective giving laptops to her students would be, but said she's encouraged by the trends she's seeing so far.

She said it's still too early to properly document how helpful the computers have been, but said students were reporting in a survey that the laptops helped them get better grades, learn more and show up more often to school.

Scandling said she's observed that the laptops have especially helped the teenage students become more organized.

She added that it was validating for the students at her school, who she said come to Yaakoosgé because they weren't succeeding elsewhere, to be given a chance to be responsible for a computer.

"What it says is, ' deserve support,'" Scandling said, adding that the students have "so stepped up to the plate."

Students can leave the computers overnight at the school or take them home with them, if they earn the privilege through good behavior and grades.

So far, only one laptop from the program has been stolen, Scandling said. Students have a strong incentive to keep the computer in good working order, which includes signing a contract - with a co-signer - to return the laptop or risk winding up in small claims court or having the district garnish their Alaska Permanent Fund dividend.

Students are also responsible for using the computer for schoolwork while in class. Teachers have software that can monitor what students are doing on their computers, and those found to be misusing their computers can have them quickly taken away.

Not every student enjoys that responsibility.

"I hardly ever use the thing," said Hans Petaja, a senior at the school. "I use it to play games."

He added that he was probably part of a small minority of students who shared his view.

Scandling acknowledged that a handful of students weren't interested in having a laptop, but said most were excited about them.

She added that there's been a strong emphasis on training, both for teachers and students, so that they can take full advantage of the machine's programs and not just use it as an expensive word processor.

The laptops come with built-in cameras and microphones and various editing software students can use to make multi-media presentations. English teacher Jodi Hammond said having those capabilities allows kids to bring their writing to life.

"They can go so much further with their ideas," Hammond said, adding that students work harder on their writing projects when they know those projects will turn into multi-media presentations that will be shown to the entire school.

Some students said they liked how easy it was to do research with a laptop and an Internet connection, while others, including Ryan, said they liked not having to keep track of so many school papers.

"I lose paper left and right," Ryan said. "With (the laptop) I can just click save and I'm good."

There are 17 other districts employing about 50 similar programs around the state, according to Carl Rose, the executive director of the Association of Alaska School Board.

The state Legislature contributed $5 million for the program in 2006, and asked participating school districts to pay for a third of costs. Juneau School District pays about $34,000 a year for the laptops at Yaakoosgé, according to the district's director of administrative services, David Means.

The Legislature didn't renew the program last year, but Rose said he's hopeful the success of programs like the one at Yaakoosgé will help convince lawmakers to open the state's wallet to give another $5 million to the program this legislative session.

"What we're trying to do through these pilots is create pockets of success that we can replicate around the state," Rose said.

He added that he'd like to see all middle school and high school students in the state eventually have their own laptops, and added that there needs to be a greater emphasis on digital learning taking place in Alaska's classrooms.

"When you look at a young person, their world is digital," Rose said.

• Contact reporter Alan Suderman at 523-2268 or

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