Smart Classrooms

Netbooks All Around

Missouri school district launches a 1:1 initiative that will put mini-laptops in the hands of 5,600 students

Mobile devices are increasingly playing a role in students' lives as more and more schools look to transform education through technology and help bridge the "digital divide" by supplying core learning tools to students in order to ensure that all students are given an equal chance for success. And, increasingly, netbooks are helping to make such efforts feasible.

One school that's in the midst of such an effort is Missouri-based North Kansas City Schools. With four high schools and a total of 18,000 students,the district kicked off its 1:1 initiative about two years ago in an effort to equip all 5,600 of its high school students with netbooks.

"We saw it as something that we needed to provide to our students," recalled Janet Herdman, executive director of information and technology services for the district, "in an effort to bridge the 'digital divide.'"

That "divide" was particularly prominent at North Kansas City Schools, where about 40 percent of the student body qualifies for reduced lunches. Delving a little deeper into the district's socioeconomic status, Herdman explained that 60 percent to 70 percent of students who reside in the southern region qualify for reduced lunch, while 10 percent to 15 percent from the northern area are eligible.

"We have a great disparity within our district," said Herdman, who pointed to that disparity as another driving factor behind North Kansas City Schools' one-to-one initiative. "We wanted to make sure that all of our students had equal access to technology, that they were prepared for the workplace or higher education."

What started out as a good intention two years ago has this year transformed into a reality for North Kansas City Schools, which is currently in the middle of its 1:1 implementation. The legwork over the last two years included a search for a portable computer that would be both functional and affordable. Herdman said the district found what it was looking for in the HP 2100-series mini notebook.

"Ninety percent of what we wanted to be able to do, we can do on the HP mini notebook," Herdman explained. "The price point was right for 5,600 students." To round out its 1:1 initiative, North Kansas City Schools also revved up its staff development efforts, knowing that teacher and parent support could make or break the program.

"Its one thing to hand out the devices to students," said Herdman, "but it's another for teachers and students to use the computers to change the classroom paradigm."

The district, which deployed the mini notebooks one school at a time, handed out the computers to students on a building-by-building basis. Because students are using the devices at school and at home, parents are also involved in the process.

"Once one building was ready, we'd get enough parents to participate in the training before moving onto the next building," Herdman said. "We had to stagger the process at the district level so as not to dilute our resources."

As evidenced by its methodic approach to this latest implementation, North Kansas City Schools is no stranger to technological innovation. In 2006, for example, it adopted the Pearson School Systems Online Assessment tool to manage student achievement. The district also upgraded its data infrastructure to include an expansive wide area network that enables district-wide high-speed Internet access.

According to Herdman, funding North Kansas City Schools' most recent technology initiative required no "new dollars" and was covered by sources such as the district's technology, curriculum, staff development, operations, and maintenance budgets. "We had no new dollars to go after, and we wanted something sustainable," Herdman explained, "so we pieced it together by reprioritizing money from within our existing budget."

Herdman said attention was also given to the school's IT infrastructure, both in terms of wireless Internet access and IT support. "We asked ourselves, 'How are we going to get 5,600 mini notebooks ready and then sustain and maintain them during use by the students?'" recalled Herdman, "not to mention the logistics of deploying the computers and handing them out to students."

To meet the challenge, the district developed what Herdman called a "robust training system for teachers" and combined it with comprehensive parent and student orientation materials. She said two years of preparation have also gone a long way in ensuring the smoothest transition possible. "We didn't start this overnight," said Herdman. "We knew that there would be 100 different decisions to make and tasks to complete to get here."

One key consideration, for example, was the process by which students would be responsible for their devices. Much like it would use with textbooks, band uniforms, and musical instruments, the district is using a "check out" system that includes clear language concerning the students' and parents' liability, should the equipment be lost, broken, or stolen.

"We loan out expensive items all the time," said Herdman, "and we're applying the same common sense to this technology."

Over the next three years, North Kansas City Schools will conduct a thorough program evaluation that includes points like student attendance, academic success, and "attitudes toward school," according to Herdman. "We're going to look at how our students and teachers are doing with this implementation."

So far, the feedback from both entities has been largely positive. "We're in the honeymoon period right now," Herdman said, "but we'll be closely monitoring the progress over the next few months to see how this implementation changes the classroom paradigm."

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