It was late in 2004 when the lights first appeared after hours outside Floydada Junior High School. People in neighboring houses didn't know what to make of them, but each night the lights were back, three or four small blue-white glowing spots against the exterior of the school walls. Not sure how to respond to this new phenomenon, they called the police.

Jerry Vaughn, superintendent for the Floydada Independent School District, chuckles at the memory of the police inquiry at the school. It turned out the mystery lights were the glow from laptop screens while students gathered around the school building to catch the wireless Internet signal from outside.

"People weren't used to seeing that," Vaughn said.

The school had just received a grant under Texas' Technology Immersion Pilot (TIP), which placed a Wi-Fi-ready laptop in the hands of every sixth-, seventh- and eighth-grader. Students would carry their laptop from class to class, and back home at the end of the day to finish their work.

The lights were also precursors of things to come in this small Panhandle town, 50 miles northeast of Lubbock. Floydada embraced its role as a TIP school more than most of the 21 others equipped with technology in the program. Three years since the mystery lights first appeared, technology immersion is a way of life. The school board, building on the TIP foundation, has pooled money to ensure a dedicated laptop or increased computer use for each of their 950 students, from pre-kindergarten through 12th grade. A citywide Wi-Fi network is expected to come online this year.

Floydada is one of the most dramatic examples of how the immersion grant has opened the doors to an entire community's ambitious adoption of technology. Clarksville is another example where the TIP grant allowed for the purchase of computers for every student in the town's school system. "It's just transformed the whole community because every student in town was part of this project," said Anita Givens, senior director for instructional materials and educational technology at the Texas Education Agency (TEA).

 

Improved Student Engagement

With each new school year under TIP, teachers and researchers say technology becomes increasingly a part of the school culture. Teachers are not required to use the laptops in any one way but are trained to use the educational software that comes bundled with the computers. The transition is tougher for some teachers than for others, but researchers say most get more comfortable with the laptops every year.

While student achievement, as measured by the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills (TAKS), hasn't been influenced much by the program, TIP schools report fewer discipline problems, better engagement in classroom activities and students who show up early and stay at school late. "We're still seeing improved student engagement, and the teachers continue to get more comfortable with it," Givens said. Theft and damage has also been less of a problem than project leaders had anticipated, she added, probably because students know they'll be getting the same laptop back each year.

TIP includes 44 Texas middle schools. Originally half the schools were given laptops, software and training for teachers and administrators, at a cost of about $1,400 per student. The other half served as control schools - they were given equal funding but were told to spend the money on anything but computers or software. The state Legislature dedicates a portion of TEA's budget to funding TIP, and the program also receives federal support from the No Child Left Behind Act.

Even without seeing an increase in TAKS scores, lawmakers recognized the importance of offering a modern educational environment in Texas, and have chosen to expand the program.

In the 2006-2007 school year that ended in May, the opportunity presented itself for the

Patrick Michels  |  Contributing Writer
Patrick Michels is based in San Francisco and Austin, Texas. He writes for Government Technology, Texas Technology and Emergency Management magazines.