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Willmar, Minn.,School District iPad plan moving a bit closer to reality

WILLMAR -- The Willmar School Board has given its approval to a plan to raise money to put an Apple iPad tablet computer into the hands of each junior and senior at Willmar Senior High this fall.

On Monday, the board approved the creation of the Willmar Technology and Education Fund, a continuing fund of the Willmar Area Community Foundation.

The business community has formed a committee to begin working on a fundraising drive to bring $350,000 to the fund.

Superintendent Jerry Kjergaard said the district would match donations up to a total of $350,000, giving the district a possible total of $700,000 to boost technology capabilities in its schools.

He called the plan a good opportunity for the district, its citizens and the business community to work together.

The district's teachers have been working with iPads this year, and school buildings have carts that contain enough iPads for a classroom. Last week, high school teachers Lyle Hovland and Tyler Gehrking said that they could do even more with the iPads if they could assign homework and send them home with students.

They've chosen iPads over other tablet computers because of longer battery life and because Apple has thousands of applications developed for education.

If the district is able to provide tablets for juniors and seniors for the 2012-13 school year, the next part of the plan would be to add iPads for all sophomores in 2013-14. Lower grades would continue to have access to the carts.

School officials have said that the iPads could help them save money by allowing the use of e-textbooks and on copying costs over time.

As an example, the School Board now views its meeting information on iPads rather than using printed copies. Kjergaard said the district saved more than a ream of paper and substantial staff time in preparing for Monday's meeting.

The school district's matching funds would come from its capital outlay budget over two years. Capital funding can be used only for equipment and building needs and can't be spent on day-to-day operating expenses.

Money from that fund is used to pay for numerous maintenance projects across the district each year. It was used several years ago to build a kindergarten wing on Roosevelt Elementary School.

At the beginning of the School Board meeting, Mike and Sheila Tolbert spoke about their interest in the subject. The Tolberts will co-chair the fundraising drive in the community.

"Our children have always benefitted from a strong public education," Mike Tolbert said. The plan to bring iPads and other technology to the schools does not involve a referendum, he said. "This is going to be supported by the community."

Sheila Tolbert said she has been a businesswoman and a resident of Willmar, "but most of all I'm a mom," she said.

She and husband are proud to be leading the committee, she said, and one of her roles on the committee will be to bring a "mom's perspective" to the effort.

Public discussion of the technology fund began after a public meeting in December between members of the Willmar Lakes Area Chamber of Commerce and Willmar educators.

Dave Baker of Willmar has been a leader in the effort to set up the technology fund.

Baker said he applauded the vision of the school officials and teachers who are working to integrate iPads into the curriculum. He called the iPad an amazing tool that needed to be in the schools.

"We want to make sure Willmar students have world-class materials," he said. "They have world-class teachers; they should have world-class materials as well."

Board members voted unanimously in favor of the move.

"I would like to thank the community for being interested in what's happening in our schools," said board member Linda Mathiasen.

Board member Dan Croonquist said he thought it was admirable for Mike and Sheila Tolbert to be heading the committee and raising money for other children, since their own were already out of school.

Board member Eric Roberts said he was pleased to see a relationship building between business and the school district and looked forward to expanding the iPads. "The energy this has injected into the high school is amazing."

Board Chairman Nathan Streed concluded, "This could change education."

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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