Maine's School Laptop Computer Program Revisited

Three years ago, Maine became the first state to give out laptops to every 7th and 8th grader in the public schools. We look at how the program is working.

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

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And I'm Melissa Block.

Handing over a $1,200 laptop computer to a 13-year-old might seem like a crazy idea, but educators in Maine don't think so. Three years ago the state became the first to give laptops to every seventh- and eighth-grader in public school. NPR's Rachel Jones reports on Maine's program.

RACHEL JONES reporting:

Bette Manchester directs the laptop program. She remembers that some voters weren't exactly thrilled when former Governor Angus King proposed the idea in 2000. They wrote letters to the editor and ranted about it on talk radio.

(Soundbite of radio program)

Unidentified Woman: ...a waste of money when we could be fixing the roofs in the schools. We should be putting money towards things like that, rather than buying something that people saw as an extra.

JONES: Even some teachers objected. They knew they'd need special training to develop lesson plans for using laptops. And they didn't want to be responsible for tracking expensive Apple iBooks, entrusted to gawky, accident-prone adolescents. But Manchester says the project turned out better than anyone expected. For once in her 36 years as a Maine educator, every student received the same advantage.

Ms. BETTE MANCHESTER: Whether you lived in the smallest town in Maine, you lived in the wealthiest towns, the resource is equitable.

(Soundbite of classroom noise)

JONES: Lewiston Middle School looks like a typical 1930s brick schoolhouse, worn around the edges, crying out for a coat of paint and a few new windows.

(Soundbite of classroom noise)

JONES: But inside you might think you've stumbled across a secret society, where hundreds of juvenile special agents walk around carrying sporty, little, black nylon cases. Miles of wire and fiber-optic cables snake across the top of every hallway. They're linked to white plastic orbs with blinking blue lights called Airports in each room. The school is a wireless hot spot where students don't have to plug in to use the Internet.

(Soundbite of classroom noise)

JONES: Peek into any classroom, and you'll see rows of students staring into the screen of their 12-by-9-inch white computers or helping a classmate get the hang of it.

Unidentified Student: Exit out of the Internet and then go to Macintosh. And then all you have to do is drag Netscape down to your hard drive. First, no, you have to go to Applications.

JONES: They're also polishing off last night's homework or researching reports.

MOHAMMED MOUSSA(ph) (Student): I did penguins.

JONES: Fourteen-year-old Mohammed Moussa moved to Lewiston a year ago from Mogadishu, Somalia. Today the slight, curly-haired teen is working on a report about penguins.

MOUSSA: How the penguins live in the cold weather. I searched for penguins, and I found many answers. The penguin can swim for many hours, about eight miles to 13 kilometers.

JONES: Mohammed says he'd never even seen a computer before coming to Lewiston. Now the seventh-grader scrolls, clicks and Googles like a pro, as the other students in his English as a second language class joke around in their native languages.

(Soundbite of students talking simultaneously in foreign languages; school bell)

JONES: But when the last bell rings here, Mohammed can't take his iBook home with him. Just over half the districts in Maine allow students to take their laptops home. In those that don't, students leave their computers at school in specially built wooden cupboards near the teacher's desk. If one goes missing, the whole school goes on lockdown, and an announcement goes out over the intercom. Nobody leaves until it's found.

That embarrassment aside, the program has energized the student body. Teacher Loretta Hamann coordinates the school's program.

Ms. LORETTA HAMANN (Teacher): You hear kids say, `I feel so smart now. I feel so rich'--I've had that word said--`because I can go onto my laptop, and I can find this out.' And it makes them feel more equal.

JONES: Other states have tried to follow Maine's example. Connecticut is thinking about giving laptops to ninth- and 10th-graders. And since 2002, Michigan has spent $7 million to buy computers for 20,000 students, though that program's funding is in jeopardy.

Early research on Maine's experiment is promising. Some say it's transformed the relationship between students and teachers. But it may be too soon to know for sure if it's worth the $27 1/2 million the state has already poured into the program. Rachel Jones, NPR News.

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