EASTON-The soft clicking sound of 27 kids typing on brand new iBook laptop keyboards filled Julie Atwell’s ninth-grade English class at Easton High School on Thursday. They were just a few of the nearly 400 Talbot County high school freshmen who got computers as part of the school system’s initiative to eventually put a laptop in the hands of every Talbot County public school student.
Now in its sixth week, the program is the first of its kind in the state and one of about 500 nationwide. So far, only high school freshmen have received the new computers, which the children are free to take home after school.
The Talbot County program is already seeing positive results, school officials say.
Superintendent Karen B. Salmon said since the laptops were distributed, teachers have reported students are having fewer discipline problems and are more engaged in their work. Salmon said freshman attendance is up.
Joanne Laskowski, a staff development specialist in charge of the program, said she thinks students will remain excited throughout the year.
“This is their environment, and we’ve just figured out how to access it,” Laskowski said. “If the novelty was going to wear off, it would have already. But there really is no novelty.”
Salmon said the program’s main goal is for students to pass the Maryland High School Assessments, which will be required for all public school students to receive their diplomas in 2009. Students take the test now, but it’s not a graduation requirement.
“Pass rates are flat over the last four years,” Salmon said. “We realized we had to do something demonstrative” so as not to deny diplomas to 40 percent of Talbot County students.
At a cost of about $500 per student, Talbot County Public Schools has a lease-purchase agreement with Apple Computer, Inc. The $200,000 deal paid for the student computers, 25 spares, 32 larger laptops for teachers, as well as training, service and software.
The deal also includes a wireless Internet infrastructure in the county’s two high schools, St. Michaels and Easton, and the board of education building.
For students without Internet access at home, Easton Utilities donated free or reduced-priced dial-up access. Nearly 150 freshmen who qualify for free or reduced-priced lunches can get the company’s Internet offer.
Salmon said she thinks the number of families applying for the federal free lunch program will increase because of the Internet incentive.
A grant from the Grayce B. Kerr Fund of Easton provided $320,000 over the next four years for the laptop program, and the Talbot County Technology Fund has about $15,000 in donations so far, Salmon said. The county board of education pays for the rest of the program.
“We want to raise $1 million from our community and then will ask for level funding from the county council,” Salmon said. She said the council usually provides about $400,000 in technology funding each year.
The ninth-graders use their nearly five pound G4 iBooks in all their core classes, from English and social studies to science and math. With a 12-inch screen and a 30-gigabyte hard drive running the latest Macintosh operating system, the computers are small but powerful.
Students have access to a number of software programs, but Laskowski said their computers are blocked from access to e-mail, chat rooms and instant messaging.
Students are also unable to download extra programs, and the school will perform regular spot checks, Laskowski said. However, as the students prove their trustworthiness with the computers, they may receive more privileges such as chat and e-mail functions, she said.
Judging by a brief visit to the school Thursday, it is clear that some students have already found extracurricular uses for their laptops.
“I Love Benjamin,” one girl had written in large pink letters during a lesson on how to develop a paragraph.
Before students could take their laptops home, their parents had to attend an hour – long training session and pay $50. Parents and students also signed contracts promising not to go into chat rooms, not to do anything illegal and not to engage in commercial activities, such as shopping on eBay.
So far, only two computers have sustained damage when the screens cracked from too much weight being placed on the closed laptops, Laskowski said. Another managed to smear peanut butter on the computer’s carrying case.
The Johns Hopkins University Center for Technology in Education is involved in evaluating the laptop program. Lynne Mainzer, associate director of the center, said the comprehensive evaluation process should take about a year.
Both high schools will collect the laptops at the end of the school year and redistribute the same computers to students when they return in the fall as sophomores, Salmon said. Freshmen will receive new laptops each year. Salmon said when these ninth-graders graduate she would like to be able to give them their laptops as a graduation present, although that detail has not been decided yet.