Stillwater Area Schools ends one-laptop-per-student program in junior high: Program was popular, but district wanted to save the cash
Jul 25, 2010 (Pioneer Press - McClatchy-Tribune Information Services via COMTEX) -- Students and staff at Oak-Land Junior High in Lake Elmo are preparing for a new school year -- and a new way of learning without having access to laptops 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
Stillwater Area Schools is doing away with a popular program that provided a laptop for every Oak-Land student and staff member.
The program cost close to $2 million over seven years, and the school board decided there's not enough money to continue it.
Instead, the district will provide fewer computers and allow students at both junior highs -- Oak-Land and Stillwater -- to bring in their own.
The district will have about 1,200 laptops for about 2,000 students at Oak-Land and Stillwater Junior High to use in class and sometimes bring home. The district also plans to rebuild the networks at both schools to accommodate students' own computers.
"It will be an adjustment not only for our teachers but our students as well. For the last seven years, our school really has replicated what the outside world is like when it comes to technology," said Oak-Land Principal Derek Berg.
"The learning outcomes and standards won't change; just the tools will," he said.
Mike Dronen, the district's technology director, said providing computers for all secondary students would be ideal, but the district can't afford it without asking taxpayers for more money. With more families buying laptops for their children, he said, it makes sense to let them use their equipment in class.
"Did many kids have cell phones five years ago? No. Do they now? Definitely," Dronen said. "I think the same thing is happening with laptops and similar technology. We're just seeing more and more people going out and purchasing it on their own. And I think that's just going to continue to grow." About 750 older laptops from the Oak-Land program will continue to be used. Over the next three years, the district will spend about $670,000 to buy 80 iMacs for labs and another 500 laptops, upgrade servers to support online classes and podcasting, and strengthen the network. All of this can be paid with existing district funds.
Roughly $2 million would have been needed to continue Oak-Land's laptop program and expand it to Stillwater Junior High, Dronen said.
If the program were continued, having it at both junior highs was key, said board member Kathy Buchholz. Some families were irked that Oak-Land students benefited from the program while Stillwater Junior High students did not.
"I think we felt it wasn't a sustainable program," Buchholz said. "Sustainability wasn't really thought about when it was started. And we're really aware of that now." Following Kids' Questions / Oak-Land's laptop program was popular among students, parents and staff. Science teacher Todd Rau said the change would be dramatic for the school, where teachers are trained to think digitally.
Next year, each zone of nine classrooms will have access to four carts of 32 laptops. That means teachers will need to plan ahead for using the machines.
But a good teacher doesn't always have everything mapped out, Rau said.
Rau said during one lesson on Lake Superior, he was talking to students about how dangerous nor'easters can be. Students were pulling up images of Lake Superior to get a better picture of the lake, while Rau pulled up a map of the lake and put it on a screen.
"When the kids are asking probing questions, we just won't have that access at our fingertips," Rau said. "Good teachers go with what the kids are asking. You can't plan for that." Teachers now have to retrain their brains, Rau said. And rethink their lesson plans.
"I'm sure I'm not the only teacher writing curriculum this summer," he said.
Ted Thompson, a parent of two Stillwater students and one graduate, said he wishes the program would continue. His two oldest children had laptops at Oak-Land, and he said their computer skills dramatically improved. Thompson's son won't have that opportunity when he starts seventh grade at Oak-Land this fall.
"Both of our kids really benefited from the program," said the West Lakeland Township resident. "I think Oak-Land was really ahead of the curve on this. I think in 10 years, many schools will have a one-to-one laptop program." No Proof Of Success Or Failure / But the program had its critics as well.
The five-year plan at Oak-Land cost the district about $1.7 million, and when it was extended for a year, another $140,000 was spent to repair equipment.
Much of that money came from a technology levy approved by voters in 2002. The levy, which totaled $2 million over five years, expired in 2008.
A University of Minnesota study released in 2008 found that laptops at the two junior high schools improved teaching, learning and student engagement. But researchers could not determine whether laptop access improved student achievement on standardized tests.
Chris Kunze was one skeptical taxpayer. He was one of two people elected to the school board in 2003 as write-in candidates opposed to the laptop program. The three incumbents who voted for the program were not re-elected.
Kunze, who is no longer on the board, said the program definitely enthused students and staff. And he was surprised by how well the students cared for the laptops. District officials said only six or seven computers were lost or destroyed.
"There was really no proof that it was a success or a failure," Kunze said. "I don't think student learning was better or worse." Thompson said he supported technology levies in the past and would do so again to pay for a program such as laptops at Oak-Land. But he understands such a levy would be a difficult sell, given the economy and what happened in 2003 when the board approved the program.
"With starting a program that dramatic, the district really should have done a better job educating the parents and the voters," Thompson said. "They need to know why it's necessary and what the benefits are." Teacher Rau said although he wishes the program would continue, Oak-Land would by no means be a technology desert.
There will still be about one computer for each two students/staff members. And the district is ramping up blended learning opportunities, in which teachers complement their instruction with online tools.
High school and junior high teachers will be using Moodle, a virtual learning environment that allows instructors to put assignments online, create discussion boards and post collaborative writing assignments.
Regardless of the tools used, Rau said the staff would still deliver high-quality instruction.
"The conductor of the classroom is still the teacher. It always was," he said. "It's just the delivery method that has to change." Megan Boldt can be reached at 651-228-5495.
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