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Computers On Every Lap

Laptop computers bring controversy and technology into classroom.

When Cathy David was principal of Samuel Tucker Elementary School, the idea of laptops seemed like a waste of money. She thought that city schools could spend their money on other — more important — needs. But now that David is assistant superintendent of curriculum and instruction, she has a different perspective.

"I have to admit that as an elementary school principal three years ago, I did not get all the hoopla about laptops," David said during a presentation about the computers at the School Board's annual retreat last weekend. "But I've seen how the millennials operate, and every aspect of their lives are infused with technology."

Millennials, children born in the 1980s and 1990s, are the focus of the city schools' laptop initiative. This year, the schools will spend $1,696,947 to lease the laptops for all students in grades 9 to 12. According to Jay Johnson, assistant superintendent for finance, the hardware is leased on a four-year contract.

"That way, at the end of the four-year period, we can renegotiate the lease," Johnson said. "When we negotiate the next lease, we can get newer equipment — hopefully at a lower cost."

But some parents are upset about the cost of the laptop computers, claiming that the School Board is spending an unnecessary amount of money on technology. They point to the division's scores on standardized tests, which show that several of the city's schools are not performing at the goals set forth by the commonwealth of Virginia and the federal government.

"We need to get back to the basics," said Richard Holtz III, who has two children in Alexandria City Public Schools. "Our schools need the kind of basic resources that are necessary to pass the standardized tests."

THE GOAL of the laptop initiative was to provide the kind of technology necessary for students to learn how to live in the modern world, where society increasingly relies on computers. The stated goals of the initiative include:

* improving classroom instruction and enhancing learning opportunities with technology

* addressing the technology inequities of students

* ensuring that students will be technologically proficient

* enhancing communication between students, teachers and parents.

At the School Board retreat, board members were given a laptop like to the ones issued to high school students. During the weekend, School Board members toted around the hardware and explored the software.

"It's about the same as my own laptop, except that they've got filters on their Internet access," said School Board Vice Chairwoman Sally Ann Baynard. "I was really impressed by the geometry software. If I had that when I was in school, I might have gone on to higher math."

Students receive software based on which classes they are enrolled in. For example, students enrolled in geometry receive special software that uses visual models to explain mathematical principals. Students enrolled in Spanish receive special software designed to help teach language skills. Disabled students receive software that has been specifically designed for their disability.

"This software allows students to initiate and control what they are learning," said Elizabeth Riddle, technology resource coordinator for the city school system. "These students are already good at instant messaging and online discussions. Why not use those skills in the classroom?"

PROCURING THE LAPTOPS was a process that involved receiving bids from several competitors. According to Chris Siegar, director of information technology for the schools, the schools went with the lowest bidder for both contracts.

Minnie Howard 9th Grade Center is getting ready to start its third year of using the computers. In 2003, six companies submitted bids to lease the city laptop computers for the use of the students. Dell was the lowest bidder, offering to lease the computers to city schools for $376,374 a year. The lease with Dell expires in 2007.

T.C. Williams High School will be using the laptops for a second year. In 2004, the city schools signed a contract with Hewlett Packard to supply the laptops to students for $1,430,573 a year. City schools received seven bids that year, eventually choosing Hewlett Packard. That contract expires in 2008.

"The interest rate on these computers is miniscule, so we were able to spread the cost of the computers out over four years instead of paying all the money upfront," Siegar said. "We wanted to get the most for our money."

INTEGRATING THE LAPTOPS into the day-to-day school environment has been a slow process, and School Board members expressed frustration that the goals of the initiative are misunderstood. According to the school system's "Laptop Implementation Plan," which is still a working document, defining the concept of "technological integration" is difficult.

"While there is no single, comprehensive definition, there is general agreement that technology is a means to an end, but not the end in itself," it states. "At the end of this four-year process, all students will benefit from the full integration of laptop technology into every subject and content area."

One of the major goals of the initiative is to customize the laptops, tailoring each computer to the needs of individual students.

"Technology plays a vital role in our efforts to personalize the high school program and enhance the life options for each student," the Laptop Implementation Plan states. The goals of customization are broad, according to the plan: "Efforts to increase the high school student's self-direction of his/her learning should result in increased motivation and engagement; improved attendance; improved achievement; enriched academic experiences through meaningful collaboration; improved research and presentation skills; and improved critical thinking and decision-making skills."

A TECHNICAL CHALLENGE facing school administrators is the ability of students to have access to the Internet while not at school. This year, students will have free dial-up access for one hour a night.

"Yes, this is slower than what we want," said David, adding that the one-hour allotment to individual students was instituted because of limited bandwidth. "But it is access."

At a recent meeting of the City Council, Councilman Andrew Macdonald was critical of the usefulness of the laptops. One issue he said that many parents and students have mentioned to him is the ability to print. Because of the centralized system of printing, the printer ports on the laptops have been disabled.

"Opening the USB port to enable students to print on home printers would render the laptops completely unprotected against worms and viruses, thereby severely jeopardizing our ability to support online SOL testing," the Laptop Implementation Plan states.

CRITICS OF THE IDEA of imbuing schools with technology point out the cost of the laptop initiative. The $1.7 million yearly price tag could easily hire 25 new teachers for T.C. Williams, reducing class size and workloads for teachers. Others say that the laptops have not been successfully implemented into the classroom.

"The computers are not going to teach our students," said Holtz. "It's like having a blender in your home — just because you have one doesn't mean that you are going to be a good cook."

For Holtz and others who criticize the laptops, the standardized test scores are an indication that more work needs to be done to teach reading, math and science. Last year, six Alexandria schools did not make adequate yearly progress required by the No Child Left Behind Act. Holtz sees learning about computers a distraction to students who are not meeting existing standards.

"We are failing them miserably," Holtz said. "To think that computers are going to increase test scores is ludicrous."