(TNS) — Ben Loutzenhiser was far from comfortable.
The high school junior was nervous, and not with first-day jitters.
"I feel like I'm going to break it," Loutzenhiser said, looking at the shiny rectangle in his hands.
General McLane High School students started the 2015-16 school year with textbooks, just like any year — but this year, some will be loaded on to new iPads.
The district launched a program that gave iPads to every middle school student — called a 1:1 program — two years ago, and spent $600,000 to expand that program to all 780 high school students this year and also purchase more computers.
The move came with a lot of planning and discussion, Superintendent Richard Scaletta said. Administrators questioned not just what technology they should use in the classroom but whether they should use technology at all.
"Then somebody brought up our mission, which is meeting every child where they are," Scaletta said. "And guess where they are? In cyberspace."
General McLane is only one of many school districts in the region that are either launching or expanding technology programs this year.
Fairview School District kicked off its own 1:1 program this year for students in fourth through 12th grades. The Erie School District, the largest in the region with nearly 12,000 students, will launch its program at four elementary schools — Harding, Lincoln, McKinley and Wayne — for students in kindergarten through second grades on Oct. 12. The Girard School District expanded its Chromebook program. And Millcreek Township School District has upgraded its wireless infrastructure in preparation for a 1:1 program using some type of technology in the 2016-17 year.
They're all part of a growing number of districts gone beyond infusing technology in the classroom to giving every student personal access.
Erie spent about $450,000 in rebates it receives from its contract with Pepsi to purchase more than 1,000 iPads.
"We're looking for ways not only to provide instruction (using different methods), we're also looking for ways to engage children in their learning," Erie schools Superintendent Jay Badams said. "There's absolutely no doubt that using the medium of tablet computing is a comfortable environment for children."
Fairview handed out more than 900 iPads this summer, before school started, after a three-year planning process that culminated in a stack of policies and permission forms. The district will spend about $500,000 over four years on the project, not including $300,000 in network upgrades.
The hope is that iPads will foster creativity in the classroom, both in teachers and students, said Justin Zona, the district's director of curriculum, instruction and assessment.
"Our society is successful because we're creative people. We have Apple. We have Google. We have General Electric," Zona said. "We need to change how we teach kids and how kids learn to foster that independence and foster that creativity.
Tablet technology really puts the emphasis on the student exploring information, Zona said.
Instead of giving students a formula or path to find a particular answer to a question, "Now we're asking them, 'Here's the problem. How are you going to solve it? Here's some tools, you explore the content on your own. I'll be there to guide you,'" Zona said. "The teacher doesn't have to be at the front of the room anymore tied to a chalkboard presenting info. Kids are in small groups, collaborating with each other."
When General McLane started its iPad program at the middle school two years ago, there were concerns that students would find ways, despite district precautions, to access inappropriate websites, that the iPads would be damaged, and that students would be distracted.
That hasn't happened, district officials said.
The iPads, used correctly, engage students, said Matthew Laser. The middle school social studies teacher has seen students use a green-screen app to make videos that make it seem as if the students are somewhere in the Middle East for projects about the geography of that region. Using the iPad, they create their own music for the videos.
"I don't see kids distracted, but it's because I've created learning experiences in my classroom using the iPad," Laser said. "They're creating and exploring."
At the high school, students spent the first day of the new school year familiarizing themselves with their iPads — some don't have them at home — and loading apps.
Some students, like Loutzenhiser, are more comfortable with textbooks. But others were excited by the change.
Senior Kayla Malone had already set up her school e-mail address — teachers can quickly and easily communicate with students — and added a personalized wallpaper to her screen.
"I like textbooks as well, but with textbooks, you're just reading and looking at material," Malone said. "With this you can interact with it."
©2015 the Erie Times-News (Erie, Pa.), distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.