No more pencils, no more books ...

You no doubt recall the rest of the old schoolyard rhyme, but you probably never imagined you'd see the day when there would be no more books in classrooms, at least not the kind made of paper.

In one pioneering Arizona high school, students have traded their textbooks for iBooks.

Construction of Empire High School in Vail, Ariz., began Sept. 27, 2004, and it opened its doors for the first time on July 22, 2005. The school is the state's first all-wireless facility to hand out laptops to incoming freshmen, all 350 of whom received an Apple iBook.

"Each new group of freshmen will receive new laptops," said Cindy Lee, principal of Empire High School. "The plan is for each student to use the same laptop for four years."

District administrators purposely kept the school smaller because research shows that students feel more connected and achieve more in smaller learning communities, Lee said.

"The kids love having those laptops," said Vail Unified School District Superintendent Calvin Baker, adding that it's not uncommon to see students surfing the Internet or doing their homework while eating their lunch. "You just don't see that kind of engagement in a regular high school."

An Apple for the Teacher

It's not surprising that a generation reared on Nintendo and PlayStation would be more comfortable opening up-to-the-minute interactive pages on a computer than the static print pages of a musty, outdated tome that was printed when Bush's daddy was president. Because computer prices have dropped, the cost of laptops is not much greater than the cost of textbooks.

"We took the money we would have put into textbooks, which is in the neighborhood of $500 per student, then combined that with the money we would have put in computer labs, and we pretty much had it covered," Baker explained.

"As far as sustaining it, we'll see," he continued. "We're hoping it's going to be so successful that our community is willing to support it. We're also hoping prices on laptops will continue to drop."

Students aren't the only ones excited about this classroom innovation.

"Our history and social studies teacher is just thrilled with it, because he can go immediately to original source documents," Baker said. "Social studies textbooks tend to be generic, politically correct and not very interesting."

With laptops, everything's up to date and there's no searching in library card files for a volume that might already be checked out by another student. On the Internet, the information is current and instantly attainable.

"Instructionally our district has identified the standards to be taught in each core content area and has calendared them," said Lee. "Our teachers use this as their guide and find appropriate resources to meet the objectives. To support the teachers, we have purchased subscriptions to curriculum resources like ABC-CLIO, Beyond Books and My Access Writing."

The federal No Child Left Behind Act mandates testing standards, and each state determines what their standards will be.

Of course, the information students can access via laptops is a concern, since there's also a lot of junk out there.

"We've identified sources," Baker said, referencing the school subscriptions to online services such as ABC-CLIO, a comprehensive online educational and reference database. "It's not like they're out there willy-nilly picking things up off the Internet."

Math teacher Melinda Jensen said using laptops in her classes adds a new dimension to teaching.

"Every time you present information in a different way, you catch learners that you may have missed before," Jensen said. "I would love to see every school district get one computer per child. It creates so many opportunities for learning."

Sue Owens Wright  |  Contributing Writer