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Laptop programs: Planning for success
Hart County Superintendent Ricky Line says districts considering a program to give computers to students should do three things: “Plan, plan, plan.”
Before the more than 700 students in Hart County High School got a new Dell Netbook, Line and his staff spent more than a year planning.
“I really believe the reason our program was so successful is that we spent a lot of time planning,” he said. “We tried to think of every possible thing that could go wrong and have a plan how to deal with it.”
The planning started with school board members.
“After all, they are the ones paying for the program,” Line said. “In these tough economic times, it would have been easy for them to say ‘It’s just too expensive.’ Instead, they realized that tough times mean it’s even more important for our kids to have everything they need to be successful.”
With board support, the next step was getting staff support – a crucial element, according to David Couch, the state education department’s associate commissioner of education technology.
“Districts that are planning on doing this have to realize they aren’t just giving students computers; they are making a fundamental change to the dynamics of the classroom,” he said. “Once you give students computers, they expect to be using them. You’re going from a model where you go to a computer lab maybe once a week to a model where you’re using a computer every day.
“That doesn’t mean you use the computer for the entire class. There will still be lectures, but if you are using the technology to its fullest, the teacher has more opportunity to engage students and become a ‘guide at the side.’”
To achieve this goal at LaRue County High School, Principal Paul Mullins involved his staff in the planning process. “We were asking our educators to make big changes in the way they were doing things; I didn’t think it would be fair to them if they weren’t involved at every step. I think if a district is going to do this, it’s important that the instructional people be just as involved as the technology folks.”
Mullins created small teams using the “Train the Trainer” approach. This core group worked with other staff in their departments on how to incorporate the computers into instruction.
Couch said training the entire staff before students get their computers is important. “The way things are in a lot of schools, you have teachers who rarely use technology. They figure the students will learn how to use it in some other class. Now, you have to make sure that everyone knows how to use technology and the best ways to use it.”
Hart County had three days of professional development last summer focused on the computer rollout.
“We designed the sessions for the different levels of competency our staff had,” explained Assistant Superintendent Wesley Weddle, who oversees technology for the district. “We did a lot of hands-on learning so everyone would be comfortable with the units and worked on different ways teachers could use the technology in their classrooms.”
Another step is informing and involving parents, which LaRue County handled by holding information sessions for them.
“Some were worried about being responsible for the computer and we had some who had some reservations on how improper contact could be blocked,” said Mullins. “Once they understood what we were doing and what a difference it would make in their child’s education, we had an overwhelming response.”
Both Hart and LaRue districts require a parent to sign permission slips and pay a fee to cover the cost of insurance, protecting the computer in case of accidental damage. Both also have tracking systems installed on the units to find them in the case of loss or theft.
Line said his district used an incentive to get parents to attend the information session. “We set our fee at $50 per year, but offered a $25 discount to families that attended the session. That not only helped the families, it got more parents into the building and informed about the program.”
Couch said districts that are hesitant to start a program should look at creative ways to fund them.
“Most high schools require parents to pay a textbook fee. As textbook publishers move online, those fees could go to technology. Schools can either provide computers or develop ways to let the students use the devices they already have,” he said.
— Dominick is a writer from Frankfort
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