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Classroom Laptop Pilot A Success, District Officials Say

Superintendent Eric Knost wants to expand the technology program in the fall.

When Tracy Krysl announced the next novel assignment for her Communication/Arts class, her students instantly jumped online and started researching the author. 

"Usually, we'd have to go home and do the research at home," freshman Kevin Ohlendorf said. "Instead, we were able to get a lot of it done in class, so we didn't have to go to the computer lab. I think we can get a lot more work done."

The student said he was surprised at the quality of the laptops and how fast he could take notes on them.

“Their level of interest and participation has increased and it really makes them more accountable for their education,” Krysl said.

The take-home laptops are part of a . This semester, one communications class at each high school received laptops to expand their learning with technology.

At Wednesday’s school board meeting, Superintendent Eric Knost said he wanted to expand the pilot to about 250 students in each high school. In the fall, two classes in each core subject of Communication/Arts, Math, Science, Social Studies plus one Health class would have the laptops.

Although the superintendent said he would give a formal presentation at the May 10 board meeting, he estimated the 550 devices will cost approximately $350,000.

The extra 50 laptops will be for any elective or upper-level teachers who want to participate, or to fill in classes where a large majority of students already have the devices. Knost also said the district was looking at returning the laptops to the existing freshmen in the fall, who will become sophomores.

“It just has this expansive quality to it and we’re taking a slow approach, but we’re doing it the right way,” Knost said. “And in time, it’s just going to become our culture, these things are going to be all over our high schools.”

Originally, Knost imagined Phase II of the pilot , but decided he didn’t want to force the professional development on teachers.

“I don’t want to do anything that is going to come with a negative tone to it,” he said. “I want this to build excitement, I want people to do it because they see the value in it and they see the people next to them doing it and they visit the classroom and see the students more engaged.”

It took less than a week for enough teachers to volunteer for the program.

Professional development and training is what Krysl said she needed most during the pilot.

“We need the PD (professional development) to help us find quality information and places for online assessment,” she said. “To help us locate free resources and plan lessons, rather than relying on textbooks.”

On the student side, Krysl noticed a dramatic increase in engagement.

Jorden Buchholz, another student in the pilot, said she liked researching topics on her own.

"They helped with not only English, but other classes because you have the laptop with you at all times and you don't have to go home and type out your reports," she said.

The fifth grading term was the first period entirely with the devices, and Krysl said at least half of her students improved their grades, while the other half stayed the same. No one’s grades decreased with the technology addition. 

Krysl said she did run into students using Skype video messaging during class, but compared it to passing notes, an age-old teacher battle.

The results didn’t surprise Knost.

“What we’ve learned from Phase I of the pilot is that teachers want professional development. They love it, but they think that it was really a lot of time on their hands to determine the sources that are out there,” he said.

The curriculum department is researching different training companies, and Knost expects to have a development program for the teachers during the summer.

“We’re so accustomed to textbooks and textbooks being that ultimate resource in our class…it’s a different mindset to come in and to have whatever resources you can find,” he said. “How do you tell a good resource from a bad resource? What do you look for?”

Title II federal funding will pay for the professional development and eventually, teachers will be able to train each other.

“We’re constantly getting feedback on what tools we need to proceed with, and ones that aren’t working,” said Director of Technology Steven Lee.

Lee met with a committee of teachers, department chairs and principals every other week during the pilot to address teacher support, free tools and student response.

During the semester, Knost said only one laptop had been severely damaged.

“The naysayers predicted the kids were going to break them, sell them, steal them, throw them, and very little of that has happened,” he said. “That hasn’t been an issue.”

The superintendent said he would study Phase II of the pilot in October to decide progress from there.

“We could fund it; (Chief Financial Officer Noel Knobloch) has talked in some of our budget conversations how we could still keep good balances even if we decided to replenish this every year,” Knost said. “But at some point and time, there’s going to have to be a revenue stream that fully sustains the project, which is why we’re picking technology that can be used in multiple scenarios. We’re stewards of the taxpayers’ money. We want to make sure something we’re doing is effective and appropriate.”

Editor's note: Student input was added to this story at 8 a.m.

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