The News Courier in Athens, Alabama

July 5, 2013

City school board mulls plan to provide students with MacBooks, iPads

By Jean Cole

— Students in Athens City Schools may be carrying computers instead of textbooks a year from now, if the school board approves a plan to put laptops in the hands of all students.

The city's penny sales tax hike that took effect in January would make it possible.

Athens City Schools' new superintendent, Trey Holladay, presented a plan to buy the computers during a work session this week. The plan, called “Power Up” calls for putting 3,327 MacBook and iPad computers in the hands of students in kindergarten through 12th grade, plus their teachers, over the next three years.

The first year, the schools would:

• Provide MacBook Air laptops for each teacher in seventh through 12th grades;

• Provide iPad IIs for each teacher in kindergarten through sixth grades;

• Provide extensive professional development during the school year and next summer;

• Provide technology coaching to work directly with classroom teachers;

• Add mobile carts in each school to allow teachers immediate ability to implement tools they learn in training;

• Additional iPads in elementary schools; and

• Develop student support teams at each school.

The second year, the schools would:

• Provide students in seventh and eighth grades a MacBook Air for school site instruction;

• Provide students in ninth through 12th grades a MacBook Air for round-the-clock use;

• Make iPads one-to-one for all elementary and intermediate school students; and

• Continue professional development and student support efforts.

The schools would pay for the computers on a lease-purchase plan that would include gradually increasing payments each year over the next three of four, depending on what the board might agree upon. The total lease payment over four years would be $917,143, or $1,098,912 over three years.

The schools already have $600,000 set aside for the computers from the penny sales tax hike established in January. The council agreed to set aside for schools 20 percent of what the extra penny generates each year.

Holladay said the MacBooks could be sold at a discounted price to graduating seniors who wanted to keep them and the proceeds returned to the computer-purchasing fund.

Holladay told board members the schools could opt for personal computers that would be cheaper, but MacBooks would be less susceptible to computer viruses.

City schools technology director Chris Hamilton and her staff have been working on the proposal for some time, she said. 

School board members would have to approve the plan and the expenditure before it could happen. Board President Russell Johnson lauded the plan and board member James Lucas said, after the work-session, he believed it would be a good step for Athens schools.

Schools in Huntsville, Madison and Florence supply laptop computers for their students.  According to a Power Up study, national data shows computer use leads to improved discipline, increased attendance and increased college attendance.

In studying and experimenting with technology over the past few years, Athens City Schools' technology officials have learned the following about technology in Athens schools:

• Students see a disconnect between their use of technology outside and inside of school; they feel technology would make learning more engaging and fun; and they see their “ideal school” as one with all students using laptops, not textbooks, and typing rather than handwriting assignments.

• Parents believe use of technology is extremely important, that technology enhances learning and that technology skills are important.

However, research shows that only 4 percent of Athens teachers report daily student use of technology; 49 percent report student use of technology only about once a month; many teachers report they don't have access to enough equipment; and teachers and administrators are eager to integrate technology but they feel isolated and they lack the on-site support they need to implement technology-rich lessons.

Holladay said the schools could implement the same program using personal computers, or PCs, and it would cost less. However, he said computer viruses are a major issue with PCs. He also said PCs offer “nowhere near the capacity for students to create things” compared to iPads and MacBooks.

Although not opposed to the Power Up plan, board member Jennifer Manville questioned how much longer the city had to pay on an existing lease/purchase plan entered into to upgrade teacher computer desktops, which cost about $500 per machine. She was worried the schools would be paying “double duty.”

School officials said they would determine when that lease ends and report back to the board.

See Sunday’s edition for stories about the new Athens Elementary School principal and proposed changes to Eagle Academy.