WASHINGTON – While some schools worry about money for their students’ textbooks, Talbot County officials may soon be fretting about money for their students’ laptop computers.
Talbot could become the first school system in the state to issue laptops to students systemwide, if the board of education gives final approval to the plan Tuesday.
The $2.5 million plan calls for every eighth-grader in county schools to get an Apple iBook laptop, beginning this fall, that they could take home and keep for five years. Succeeding classes of eighth graders will be issued laptops, until every student in grades 8-12 has one.
“I want them (students) to have the technology, because I want them to be able to use it 24/7,” said Talbot Schools Superintendent Karen Salmon.
Salmon said that handing out laptops will “level the playing field” for students who do not have computers at home, she said.
“We definitely have wealth in our county; we’ve got lots of poverty as well,” she said. “We have an achievement gap that I think is an economic one.”
Experts say there are other benefits as well — but pitfalls, too.
Carole Redline, director of educational technology leadership at Goucher College, said that without the right guidelines, for example, students might check e-mail, message one another or browse the Web during class. She said there are also security issues and student carelessness to consider.
But Salmon said she will take steps to prevent those problems.
“I am going to make them (students) sign a contract,” she said. “We are going to say to them: ‘This is really a privilege.'”
Redline said the most important measure is ensuring that teachers are properly trained. Without that, teachers will not be able to help students use the laptops to their full advantage, she said.
Salmon said teachers would get an ongoing technology training, including summer sessions and regular workshops, to prepare them to use the computers in the classroom.
If the kinks can be worked out before the computers are issued, Redline said students “will just fly, once the rules are in place.”
While some private schools have issued personal laptops to students, and other public schools have expressed an interest to Apple, state officials said they believe Talbot is the first public school system in the state to hand out laptops.
Officials at other school systems said they knew of laptops that can be shared in the classroom and loaned to students on the weekends as a reward for good behavior. But none had a program like the one Talbot County is proposing.
Talbot does have the advantage of being smaller than many counties — it has only one high school. In Prince George’s County, where there are 24 high schools, such a program would not be “impossible, but certainly expensive,” said county schools spokesman John White.
But some Talbot school board members have expressed concern about the plan’s price tag, according to published reports.
The county will lease the iBooks at a reduced rate, under the “Apple 1 to 1 Learning” program. That program helps provide laptops at about 450 schools across the nation, according to Salmon.
Still, she said, the county has only budgeted about $338,000 next year for the project, which is expected to cost $2.5 million over five years. Salmon is confident that the county can raise the difference through private fund-raising, state grants and other sources.
Christie Towers, an Easton High School senior and student member on the school board, called the laptops program an “interesting idea.” But she thinks the money could be better spent elsewhere.
“I hear lots of complaints about the library,” Towers said. She added that the school system will stop paying for students’ Advanced Placement exams after this year, and that her school lacks many resources.
But Salmon said the laptop program is a priority and that funds will only come from the system’s technology budget, not from other areas. She also thinks giving students laptops now will save money in the long run.
“I think in the future, we will be spending less money on textbooks,” she said.
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