College Community latest district to buy laptops for students

Central City among first districts in state to launch program

Megan Olson, an eighth grade math teacher at Prairie Poin Middle Schoolt, assists Drake Chien (left) and Trey White, bot
Megan Olson, an eighth grade math teacher at Prairie Poin Middle Schoolt, assists Drake Chien (left) and Trey White, both 14 and of Cedar Rapids, build 3D models of buildings in the College Communtiy school district(Nikole Hanna/The Gazette)

Megan Olson’s eighth grade math class needs to build faster.

The Prairie Point Middle School and Ninth Grade Academy students were using 3D modeling software in class Friday for a project to design digital replicas of campus buildings. But some of the students aren’t close to finishing, and Olson is worried she doesn’t have a computer lab reserved for further sessions.

Lab space isn’t the only issue with digital projects such as these, according to student Olivia Usher, 14. They’re fun and more interesting than regular class work, but she doesn’t like the district’s Acer netbooks, which have technical problems with their track pads. And while she has a computer at home to work on assignments, not all students do.

“You hear a lot of kids use that as an excuse,” she said.

All of these problems could be gone next year, as College Community school district is purchasing laptop computers for every student in grades 9-12 at Prairie Point and Prairie High School for the 2012-2013 school year.

Prairie is calling the effort a “digital literacy program,” although similar efforts across Iowa frequently are called “1:1 programs” in reference to the ratio of computers to students.

College Community will be the 55th district in the state to adopt such a program, according to the Center for Advanced Study of Technology Leadership in Education. Lisbon and Central City pioneered 1:1 rograms in Linn County, with Central City’s being one of the first in the state.

It was uncharted territory four years ago when the 500-student district purchased laptops for all students in grades 5-12, but because they are small, Central City has more room to experiment, said Superintendent Karl Kurt.

“We’re a bit like a speedboat, we’re fast and maneuverable.” he said. “The larger districts are barges. They carry more, so they have to be careful.”

With Central City’s initial lease with Apple about to expire, Kurt said the program has succeeded in improving student engagement and standardized test scores. The school board thinks so as well, and voted last Tuesday to replace the old computers and to purchase iPad 2s for grades 1-4. This puts a device in the hands of every student in the district, except for kindergarten and preschool.

But it hasn’t been smooth sailing for everyone.

The Mount Vernon school board voted 5-2 on April 9 to delay adoption of a 1:1 program for at least a year after opposition from the community. Multiple people turned up during the public comment session of that meeting to request the district focus on other priorities, such as facility improvements,

Superintendent Pam Ewell said she would be talking with community members to get a better idea of what they want, but is still convinced that a ramp-up in student technology is the right choice.

“I don’t think we should be afraid of it, I think we should embrace it,” she said.

The students in Olson’s math class at Prairie Point certainly are. The eighth-graders will be the first to have laptops for all four years of high school and are looking forward to getting their computers in August.

The district is purchasing about 1,900 laptops — 1,500 for students and 400 for faculty — from Apple Inc, for $2.3 million. The computers will be paid for over the course of the next three years using funds from local-option sales tax and physical plant and equipment levy funds.

Prairie’s conversion to a laptop-for-all school began about three years ago, according to Craig Barnum, the district’s technology director Funding had to be sorted out, as well as infrastructure planning for strengthening the school’s wireless Internet.

More than that, College Community wanted to fundamentally change how its classes were taught, said Barnum.

“How do you use these tools to create high-quality instructional design? We’ve been talking about that with our teachers for the last three to four years,” he said.

It may take a few years, but Barnum hopes the technology leads to classes at Prairie becoming more personalized, with teachers giving students authentic, real-world work. The laptops are supposed to improve student engagement; if classes don’t adjust along with the tools, then the computers can become distractions.“If we just give the kids computers and they don’t do anything differently, then we’ve missed the point,” he said.  

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