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The Digital Divide

Some teachers use the laptops every day; others call them ‘expensive paperweights.’

For Hunter Hammond, a Social Studies teacher at T.C. Williams, laptop computers make history come alive for her students in just a few keystrokes.

Hammond says that the portable computers allow her access to a world all their own, learning in a way that is meaningful to them. From their desks, they can conduct research and explore the vast body of knowledge that can be found on the Internet. They can personalize their experience, searching for answers to questions that haven’t been asked yet.

"For studying history, the laptops are especially good because the students can read primary source documents," Hammond said during a recent class. "Right now, they are looking at Civil War photographs from the Library of Congress. They’ll use what they’ve found to write a period letter about the war."

As the students study 19th-century photographs, a 21st-century battle was being waged outside the classroom. In Alexandria, where all high school students are given laptop computers, concern is mounting about the rising cost of technology. The division pays about $1.7 million a year to lease the laptop computers — and many students, teachers and parents question their usefulness.

"My English teacher calls them ‘expensive paperweights,’" said Christy Johnson, a senior at T.C. Williams. "My teacher for Physics uses the laptops every day. But if I didn’t have that class, I wouldn’t use my laptop at all."

All students from grades 9 to 12 in Alexandria City Public Schools get a school-issued laptop, and they are free to take them home whenever they want.

JACK HENES, a Social Studies teacher, finds the computers a useful window into the future. He says that he uses the laptops most days, and that the communication opportunities presented by the computers are unparalleled — and he supports the division’s plan to put a computer on every lap.

"Being a pre-digital person, I find that the students teach me new things every day," he said during a recent class. "I find myself not using the library much because the Library of Congress is right there at your desktop."

Henes says that he recently used the laptops to have students study their own futures. He assigned them to research colleges they might attend, careers they might pursue and salaries they might make. There in the classroom, on the backlit laptop screens, Henes said that the students were able to accomplish more in one hour than they could in one week without the computers.

"This is really how people do it in the field," he said. "So I think the laptops teach skills that our students will need in the future."

As the modern world becomes more digitized, school administrators think that using technology will become less controversial. They admit that all the teachers are not comfortable with the laptop computers, but say that a generational shift is taking place. They want their students to be on the cutting edge of the technological revolution that is now taking place in the world outside the classroom.

"Some people are resistant," said John Porter, principal of T.C. Williams. "But without computer skills, our students are going to have a hard time competing in today’s world."

The idea that the computers are a vocational necessity is a recurring theme in the school division’s argument in defending the cost of the laptop computers.

"Basic technology skills are needed in the job market," said Elizabeth Riddle, technology resource coordinator for the city school system. "This is not a passing phase. We’re really dealing with a whole new world here, and access to technology is a greater problem than a lot of people in the community realize."

THE GOAL of the division’s laptop initiative is to open doors for students. School administrators are concerned that without these skills, students would be shut out of the modern world. This concern is evident in the stated goal of the initiative:

-- 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.

The "Laptop Implementation Plan," a working document that guides the use of the computers, suggests that the machines will be used as "integral tools in every 9-12 classroom to enhance teaching and learning in all content areas." It includes plans to integrate the technology into everyday classroom activity and involve family members in the process.

"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," the plan outline 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."

Currently, the plan restricts printing to a centralized hub at the school and prevents students from using wireless networks outside of the school. This year, the libraries at T.C. Williams and George Washington Middle School will stay open from 6 to 9 p.m. to give students wireless access for their laptops. Students also have dial-up access for one-hour periods.

"Yes, this is slower than what we want," said Cathy David, assistant superintendent of curriculum and instruction. "But it is access."

PROCURING THE LAPTOPS was a process that involved receiving bids from several competitors. According to B.J. Clyburn, the school’s purchasing agent, the lowest bidder won both contracts to supply laptops to public school students.

The Minnie Howard 9th Grade Center is in its third year of using the computers. In 2003, seven companies submitted competitive bids to lease the city laptop computers for student usage. Computer manufacturer Dell was the lowest bidder, offering a per unit cost of $416 for 900 units. The annual cost of leasing from Dell is $376,374. The contract will expire in 2007.

T.C. Williams High School is in its second year of leasing laptops. In 2004, five companies submitted bids to lease the computers. The lowest bid — $412 per unit for 2,400 units — came from Software Productivity Strategist, a company based in Rockville, Md. That lease expires in 2008.

Assistant Superintendent for Finance Jay Johnson says that the purpose of leasing the equipment on a four-year contract is to provide leverage for the future.

"At the end of the four-year period, we can renegotiate the lease with the vendors," Johnson said. "When we negotiate the leases, we are going to ask for newer equipment, hopefully at a lower cost to the division."

CRITICS OF THE LAPTOPS point out the cost of the initiative. The $1.7 million yearly price tag could hire more than a dozen new teachers for T.C. Williams, for example, reducing class size. They point to the school’s test scores, which have failed to meet federal standards since No Child Left Behind was instituted in 2001.

"We are failing our students miserably," said Richard Holtz III, who has two children in Alexandria City Public Schools. "Our schools perform very poorly compared to the region, and our students need the basic resources that are needed to pass these tests."

But Porter disagrees, saying that the computers have an intangible value that surpasses the monetary value of the hardware.

"We’re not looking at computers replacing people," Porter said. "It’s just another way for us to better meet the needs of our students."

Individual software application packages are installed on students’ computers depending on what 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. Students with disabilities receive software that has been specifically designed for their disability.

"These software packages allow students to initiate and control what they are learning," Riddle said. "In the workplace, you would never have a situation where employees were asked to share one computer. So I think it’s important for our students to have this individualized experience with the computers."