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MACCRAY secondary students abuzz as school district to provide them with iPads

Tyler Miller, from left, Courtney Schmidt and Isaac Koenen get a first look at one of MACCRAY School District's iPads. Tribune photo by Ron Adams

Isaac Koenen had never touched an iPad before. When his teacher Kathy Stalnaker put hers on the table in front of him, Isaac was silent for a moment, and his fingers stretched toward the screen. The MACCRAY High School freshman said, "That's amazing." He never lifted his eyes from the iPad.

Tyler Miller, also a freshman, slid over to have a look. "Sweet," he said, as his eyes widened.

A moment later, Courtney Schmidt, a seventh-grader, was looking over Isaac's shoulder, too.

All three of the students were drawn to the thin tablet computer and quickly forgot about the study hall they had just left.

Courtney had used an iPad before, but Isaac and Tyler got their first taste Wednesday.

"This makes my PC look like a rock with cave drawings on it," Isaac said.

Next fall, all of them will have individual school-issued iPads to use.

The MACCRAY School Board voted unanimously on Monday to move ahead with a three-year lease on 440 iPad 2 tablet computers. The iPads will be distributed to teachers and to students in grades 7-12. Each elementary school will have a portable lab with 25 iPads.

The lease for the iPads will be $72,000 a year for three years. The district will spend another $32,000 in the first year to upgrade its technology infrastructure to give its schools wireless networks and to purchase cases and applications, or apps, for the iPads.

Superintendent Greg Schmidt said the district is still developing its policies for student use of the iPads. It is looking to Gibbon-Fairfax-Winthrop for some guidance. That district started its iPad program this year.

Students and their parents will most likely have to sign contracts governing the safety and use of the equipment. "They get to take them home every night and every weekend," Schmidt said. They'll have to turn them in at the end of each year, though.

Schmidt said a recently approved levy has helped the district build up its fund balance, and that is making the iPad program possible. It should come with some savings, too.

"We do think there will be some textbook savings," he said. Free digital textbooks are available, and they can be customized to fit a district's needs.

Graphing calculators, which can cost as much as $100, won't be needed, because a 99-cent iPad app will do the thing. Paper and copier expenses should be lower. Teachers can assign homework and students will be able to turn it in using the iPads.

"If what you do can easily be done electronically, we should be doing that," Schmidt said.

A dozen or more iPads are already being used in the district, either personally owned by staff members or purchased by the school with grant money, Schmidt said.

"It's just the best thing for the kids," said Brock Sombke, the district's technology coordinator. "One of the biggest advantages is the fact they'll have nearly unlimited access to information."

Another advantage is that the iPads will level the playing field for students whose families don't own computers or have Internet access.

Students will be able to download information at school and use it later at home, he said, and they will be able to use their iPads at businesses that offer free wireless access.

The school staff is on board with the coming change, but some were worried about having to change how they teach. "I told them, 'Use your style and make the iPad enhance what you are doing,'" Sombke said.

Librarian Diane Holien worked with Sombke and others to develop the iPad proposal over the last year.

"It's a great day to be a student at MACCRAY," she said.

The new equipment should free up computer lab space, she said, but there will still be a need for the library and computer labs. An electronic book "is great, but it doesn't replace a book."

When Schmidt approached English teacher Stelnaker's students Wednesday, Tyler beat her to the door. "Mr. Schmidt, you're so cool for passing the iPad thing," he said.

Stelnaker laughed when asked how she felt about the move. "Since I've been begging, I'm pretty excited about it," she said with a big smile. "I think it's a neat opportunity for the teachers and the kids in the classroom. ... The horizon has expanded greatly."

The students said they were excited to be using the new technology next year. They liked the idea that the plan has an eco-friendly side by reducing paper use.

"They all like it," Courtney said of her classmates. "Now all of us have to carry big heavy backpacks around."

Tyler said he thought kids could work harder in school "because they've got technology in their hands."

Stelnaker said she's heard some concerns about breaking the iPads, but in her research she found that schools have little problem with that. Most kids are pretty responsible with their electronics, she said.

"If this helps our school, it will give us a better education," Isaac said. "Instead of lots of people using one computer, everybody will have their own thing."

Stelnaker referred to high school students as "digital natives" who will need little training on the iPad. She illustrated the point when she put her own iPad 2 in front of Isaac. In less than a minute, a video was playing on the screen.

"I think it just revolutionizes what can happen in the classroom," she said. "I think it has applications across every discipline."

Linda Vanderwerf

I cover education issues for the West Central Tribune and have worked for the paper since 1995. I have worked in journalism since 1981.

Follow me on Twitter: @lindavanderwerf

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