Basics keeps middle schoolers in- and online

'The school principals say that tardiness is down, and there are fewer discipline problems.'

'New Hampshire's Wendell Packard

Michael J. Bechetti

The days of kids throwing a peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich, an apple and a bag of chips into a backpack, slinging it over their shoulders and blithely skipping out the door to school are changing. Some states are adding something a bit more substantial to student backpacks: notebook PCs.

Maine, which two years ago pioneered the idea of issuing notebook PCs to students statewide with its Learning Technology Initiative, is providing a wireless Apple iBook notebook PC to every seventh- and eighth-grade student in public school.

More than 37,000 notebook PCs are now in 239 Maine middle schools. The program has demonstrated an increase in attendance and a decrease in behavior problems.

In some states, the laptop-in-every-backpack idea, which caught fire during the surplus years of the late 1990s, fizzled during the economic downturn in 2001. But two states'New Hampshire and Michigan'are forging ahead, despite economic pressures.

This year New Hampshire launched the Technology Promoting Student Excellence program, a pilot to give a new Apple iBook wireless notebook to each seventh-grade student in six schools, more than 600 children.

Gov. Craig Benson had pushed for a similar program previously, but the estimated costs were high, and the legislature turned it down. Benson decided to start the program with private donations.

Then once the program started showing results, he reasoned, the state could put money into it.

Benson raised $1.3 million for the iBooks through private donations, said Wendell Packard, spokesman for the governor's office. In January, Benson personally handed each seventh grader an iBook.

Each year, incoming seventh graders at the pilot schools will receive an iBook. At the end of the school year, the students will return the PCs to the school to be used by the next class.

The program will run for four years, Packard said. After four years, students can buy the iBooks for a dollar.

Each machine comes with Apple's 802.11g internal AirPort Extreme card, an 800-MHz PowerPC G4 processor, 256M of RAM, a 30G hard drive, combination CD-RW/DVD-ROM drive, 10/100 Ethernet port, 56K modem and the Mac OS X Version 10.3 operating system.

The schools' 40 teachers received their iBooks a week before Christmas and had two days of training, said Lars Ljungholm, account manager for Apple Computer Inc.

New Hampshire students also received extra batteries, Microsoft Office software, netTrekker search engine software from Thinkronize Inc. of Cincinnati, AppleCare help desk support and two Apple iSight video cameras per school.

Although the New Hampshire program is only a semester old, the results have been positive, Packard said. 'The school principals say that tardiness is down, and there are fewer discipline problems,' he said.

And because the project was funded exclusively by private donations, it has cost taxpayers nothing.

Freedom to Learn

Michigan's Freedom to Learn program is finding similar results, said Debbie White, a spokeswoman for Michigan Virtual University, which is working with the Michigan Education Department to implement the notebook program.

Unlike the New Hampshire program, the Freedom to Learn program is fueled by $22 million in state funds and $17 million in federal funds to provide every sixth-grader in the state with a Hewlett-Packard notebook PC.

The program is being implemented in phases, providing sixth-graders with a 7-pound Hewlett-Packard nx9010 notebook with a 2.4 GHz Intel processor, 30G hard drive, CD-ROM drive and 14-inch XGA LCD screen with 1,024-by-768 resolution and 32-bit color.

Wireless connections are supplied by a 54G AirForce MaxPerformance 802.11g SmartRadio wireless card from Broadcom Corp. of Irvine, Calif. The PCs also have a pointing device, integrated audio card, internal speakers and built-in antenna that supports the IEEE 802.11g and 802.11b wireless standards.

'Students are better prepared, and the parents are more involved,' White said.
Eventually, all Michigan public school students will have a notebook PC, White said.

The PCs remain the property of the school district, not the students, she said.

About the Author

Trudy Walsh is a senior writer for GCN.

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