Next month, the 22 fifth graders at Hollywood Elementary School in Brookfield will have something new to carry home: their shiny new Apple MacBook laptop computers. Last week, the board of Riverside Public School District 96 unanimously approved a pilot project to allow fifth graders at Hollywood home privileges for their district-issued laptops.
At the start of this school year, all fifth graders in District 96 were given new computers under the One to One Laptop Program, an initiative the school board approved in the spring. It was intended from the outset that the fifth graders would be able to take their laptops home, but school administrators decided to wait a little before allowing the kids to do so.
“This isn’t really a surprise,” said District 96 Superintendent Jonathan Lamberson. “This is just the next step.”
Because Hollywood is the smallest school in the district, with only one fifth-grade class, students there were chosen to be the first to have take-home privileges. If the pilot project at Hollywood School goes smoothly, all fifth graders in the district will eventually get to take their laptops home.
Parents concerned about details of the program will have the chance tonight to learn more about it. Mindy Keller, Hollywood’s interim principal, and Brian Trimmer, the school’s fifth-grade teacher, will be available to answer parents’ questions about when the kids will be allowed to take their computers home and what will be expected of them when they do so.
According to District 96 technology coordinator Liz Whaley, who is managing the One to One Laptop Program, Hollywood fifth graders will only be able to take their laptops home when they have a specific purpose, such as a homework assignment. Their teacher will have to approve the laptop being taken out of the school.
“If there is no project to complete, they don’t take it home,” Whaley said.
Some parents have expressed concerns about students being able to sneak away with portable computers to visit inappropriate Web sites. But Whaley says the children are being taught to use their computers safely. She compares the district’s lessons about computer safety to the popular DARE campaign for drug resistance.
“Let’s not block these programs,” Whaley said, referring to questionable paths the fifth graders could take. “Let’s teach them to use it in the safe way.”
Some parents had expressed concern last spring that fifth graders were too young to take care of their laptops and that the laptops could easily be lost, stolen or damaged.
Other parents wondered if they would be financially responsible if their child’s computer was lost, stolen or damaged. Lamberson tried to address those concerns last week.
“We think that our students are incredibly responsible,” Lamberson said. “If there is an accident and we need to repair a computer, we will.” He said that the district would replace a lost or stolen laptop, adding that theft has not been an issue in other districts that have given students laptops.
The MacBook laptops at District 96 schools are entry-level notebook computers that the district buys, five at a time, from Apple at a discounted rate for schools. Since the spring, when the laptop program was approved, the district has bought 170 MacBooks for the fifth graders and their teachers. This year, District 96 has budgeted $171,000 for computers.
Parents will be given an opportunity to sign a form prohibiting their fifth grader from taking his or her laptop home.
School board members generally seemed enthusiastic about the take-home program.
Mary Ellen Meindl was especially enthusiastic and almost seemed a bit envious of the fifth graders.
“I view them as pioneers,” Meindl said. “They have already bought into it. They’re really excited.”
One mother of a Hollywood School fifth grader was also enthusiastic but cautious.
“I’m optimistic. I’m excited about the opportunity,” said Laura Tracy. “I’m a little bit leery about my son’s responsibility.”
Lamberson said that no decision about when fifth graders at other schools in the district will be able to take their laptops home will be made until the experience at Hollywood is evaluated. “We just need to gather some information first, before we think about other schools,” he said.
In the first two months of school, fifth graders in all four District 96 elementary schools have been making good use of their laptops, Whaley told the school board on Oct. 20.
“It’s rolling out very smoothly,” Whaley said of the One to One program. “It has far exceeded my expectations. Technology is actually changing the way kids are learning.”
Whaley said that students are doing more learning on their own and that, among themselves, they’re also learning to help each other.
Trimmer agreed. “They’re becoming teachers to each other,” Trimmer told the school board.
District 96 officials said last spring that the laptop program is cutting edge and that few districts have provided laptops to children as early as the fifth grade. In addition to doing research on their laptops and using the computers for keeping journals, fifth graders have, according to Whaley, done such work as writing, performing and videotaping commercials for a persuasive writing exercise. The commercials project was at Ames School, where the fifth grade teachers are Mrs. Wright, Mr. Harvalis and Ms. Allen.