High school laptop program gets late start

Teachers' hopes high for next year

Posted: Tuesday, May 05, 2009

When school officials rolled out laptops to lend to every high school freshman in the district in February, students, parents and educators were abuzz about the possibilities.

David J. Sheakley / Juneau Empire
David J. Sheakley / Juneau Empire

But it was a late start for the rollout that came at an awkward time in the school year, which kept many teachers from integrating them into their lessons.

Juneau-Douglas High School science teacher Jonathan Smith was particularly excited about the possibilities. He wants to use electronic probes that can feed data from lab work straight to the laptops and anticipates they will become a valuable resource - next year.

"I can talk all day about how I'll use them next year," Smith said.

Freshman Peter Peel said he was excited about having a laptop in class the first few weeks, but his interest fizzled because he wasn't using it much and he prefers not to lug it around.

He and his classmates were using the laptops Monday in Ali McKenna's ninth grade English class to create music videos that paired a theme from a song with photos and a literary theme from their reading.

Watching the kids actually work with the laptops and software in class feels a bit like being in an Apple infomercial. Their faces and desks are aglow with the undulating soft white light coming off the Apple logos and all the software names seem to have that trendy lowercase 'i' as a prefix: iPhoto, iWeb, iMovie.

"I like them, but I don't really have a reason to use them" regularly, said freshman Krista Thomson. And, "If you don't turn in your computer, they'll hunt you down."

Freshman Marlena Sloss said she was sort of indifferent about the laptops, too, but said making a music video on literary themes was definitely more fun than composing an essay.

The laptop initiative began in Juneau during the 2006-2007 school year as a $367,000 pilot program at Yaakoosge Daakahidi Alternative High School with promising effects on attendance, attitudes and grades. The school serves about 150 students, typically ones that would drop out of traditional schools because of work, family or other challenging personal circumstances.

This year, the program expanded to serve the entire freshman classes of Thunder Mountain and Juneau-Douglas high schools, about 400 more students. Each freshman is eligible to check out their own personal laptop from their school. Eventually, they'll be allowed to take them home, too, though the particulars of earning that privilege are still being worked out.

The program is funded partially by local money and partially by grants from the Alaska Association of School Boards' Consortium for Digital Learning, which has received $7.5 million from the state Legislature since 2006 to help fund the program around the state. The program covers the actual laptops plus faculty training, beefier network backbones, wireless networks, repairs and technical support.

Steve Nelson, project coordinator for the Consortium on Digital Learning, said 28 of Alaska's 53 school districts have the one-to-one laptop program to some degree, with about 12,000 laptops total at nearly 100 schools.

The consortium has arranged deals with Apple and Dell for the program. It's not done at a charitable rate, Nelson said, though the consortium does get an education discount and a volume discount by acting collectively on behalf of all the participating districts.

The money committed to the initiative over the next three years in Juneau won't cover its expansion beyond Yaakoos and the freshman classes at the two high schools.

JDHS Assistant Principal Dale Staley said he hopes the laptops eventually replace the need and expense of investing in school computer labs. He said this year, teachers have been using the laptops as an alternative to computer lab time. And some students are checking out laptops for their own use everyday.

"The machines are getting used a lot," Staley said.

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