More Pennsylvania Districts Adopt Take-Home Laptop Programs

Take-home device programs can provide a way for students with fewer resources at home to compete on a more even playing field.

by Sarah M. Wojcik, The Morning Call (Allentown, Pa.) / September 14, 2015

(TNS) -- It was only Day 3, but history teacher Josh Snyder knew he was off to a good start when he saw his ninth-grade students at Northwestern Lehigh High School march into class with their own personal laptops.

Snyder, already a fan of technology in the classroom, was witnessing a new dimension of the district's technology program — an initiative that put a MacBook Air laptop into the hands of every high school student.

Now his students would have a ready tool for whenever a lesson took on a spontaneous life of its own.

"The logistics in the past were just …," Snyder's voice trails off tellingly. "You'd have to plan for weeks ahead for the use of certain technology. Now just knowing each student is going to have a computer each and every day it makes it so easy. This has opened up a wide scope of learning styles and techniques."

Northwestern Lehigh is among a growing number of school districts in the Lehigh Valley that have launched 1:1 programs, so named for the ratio of laptops to students.

State and federal education departments don't track the number of such programs. But in the Valley, they include Southern Lehigh, Salisbury Township, Catasauqua Area and Saucon Valley, where students in sixth grade and beyond have iPads they can take home.

Almost every school makes computers available in some fashion — whether in the form of a computer lab, a rolling cart with laptops or iPads, or a bring-your-own-device program. But in most cases, student access is limited.

Supporters say 1:1 programs are a game-changer, allowing teachers to facilitate classroom collaboration, explore interactive online textbooks, examine primary source material more deeply, and spontaneously investigate topics of interest.

At least one study suggests 1:1 programs have led to higher test scores, lower drop-out rates and fewer disciplinary problems.

But some pioneering districts that adopted 1:1 programs a decade ago quickly abandoned them after failing to see quantitative success and finding difficulty in keeping students from being distracted and from breaking through firewalls.

Recent adopters say better technology has eliminated a lot of the distraction issues. And they say better test scores aren't the primary goal, but rather the enhancement of traditional learning while preparing students for a technologically rich world.

"Technology is not the end-all. There is no silver bullet," said Leah Christman, superintendent of the Southern Lehigh School District. "It's still the teacher that makes the difference. What we have seen for the power of learning is just so amazing, we don't want to limit that to students who want to have that opportunity."

The stakeholders

Students agree having a laptop at school all day makes a world of difference.

Southern Lehigh junior Jordan Munoz said her productivity shot up and her communication with teachers and fellow students improved immediately after she got a district laptop in her sophomore year.

"It definitely made things a lot easier," said Jordan, 17, of Coopersburg. "You didn't have to worry about flash drives or forgetting something like that at school. My parents were thrilled by it."

Having laptops allowed Jordan and students involved in a group project on Tay-Sachs disease, a rare and deadly disorder that affects children, to maximize multimedia approaches and networking elements that helped raise awareness and funds for the illness.

As easy as it is for students to adapt, for districts the decision to start 1:1 programs involves buy-in from school board members, administrators, staff and parents.

Districts must decide who gets the devices and how to pay for them. Also in the mix is teacher training.

Northwestern Lehigh Superintendent Mary Ann Wright said the district paid close attention to districts that had adopted 1:1 programs — notably Southern Lehigh and Salisbury, which has received national accolades and attention for its 1:1 laptop program over the course of its five-year history.

"They were part of our learning curve and inspiration to make us see that we could do this," Wright said.

Northwestern Lehigh decided to limit its 1:1 program to high school students for now, but other districts have fully embraced the idea.

Southern Lehigh, for instance, expanded its personal device program this year to all students, but only middle school and high school have the option to take the technology home.

Unlike Southern Lehigh and Salisbury, where devices are on a four-year lease program, Northwestern Lehigh has opted to purchase the computers.

The district budgeted $613,699 this year for the program, but believes that number will even out, dropping to $350,522 next year and remaining steady just below that figure for subsequent years. Southern Lehigh and Salisbury see a similar budget line each year for their leasing programs.

Once districts commit to the idea, educators have their own share of homework in learning how to incorporate technology into the classroom. Finding teachers weren't using the laptops in the classroom was another reason some early adopters ended their programs.

Parents are yet another vital stakeholder for 1:1 initiative success.

Students who want to take laptops or tablets must pay an insurance fee, usually between $50 and $75, to cover damages or lost devices. That fee is waived for students who receive subsidized lunches.

Christman said she wishes Southern Lehigh's program rollout three years ago had done a better job of convincing parents it was in their children's best interests to take the devices home at night and that their children could be trusted with expensive pieces of equipment.

"I think there are some parents that are still challenged by the idea of having that kind of responsibility," she said.

Christman said the program teaches the students accountability and most pass that test with flying colors. Lynn Fuini-Hetten, assistant superintendent at Salisbury, saw parental wariness vanish as the technology became a natural extension of the educational experience.

"It would be very difficult to tell teachers and students we weren't going to fund this program any longer," she said. "It's become such a huge part of the district."

The other oft-repeated worry — distraction — is also confronted head-on by districts, administrators say.

Andrew Rochon, a 16-year-old junior at Southern Lehigh, said the laptops don't create any more classroom distractions than any other facet of teenage life. Teachers usually require the computer screens be kept closed unless the class is actively working on laptops.

"It's not like you can just surf the Internet. Lots of websites are blocked and restricted," said Andrew, of Coopersburg.

Siegfried said students struggled with time management when the computers were first introduced.

"But they very quickly learned that distracting themselves in class showed up in their grades," the principal said.

Filtering systems block certain websites and are updated as needed when resourceful teens find a way around them. But the most effective sentry against distraction is the teacher, according to Pam Tonkay, a learning support teacher at Northwestern Lehigh High School.

Tonkay, an admitted fan of the burgeoning technology, said classroom distractions have been around since the dawn of education. Good classroom management controls the problem, she said.

"Back in the Stone Age, they passed notes under the desk, then they texted on their phones," Tonkay said. "There's always been distractions."

Take-home device programs can also provide a way for students with fewer resources at home to compete on a more even playing field, according to Tonkay.

"It's also an equalizer," she said. "For a student who didn't have these devices at home, this can provide that opportunity. It gives a voice to those who might not have had a voice before."

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