RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
Students in a school district in Kansas will have laptops they might not have been able to afford now that the district is distributing 5,000 of them, one to every high school student. Kansas City joins a growing number of districts trying to get laptops to their students.
Surveys indicate more of the nation's largest public school districts have some form of a universal laptop program. School officials in Kansas City hope that computers will transform education in that impoverished urban district.
NPR's Jason Beaubien reports.
JASON BEAUDIEN: Administrators at the Kansas City, Kansas Public Schools say they are two main reasons for the laptops: One is to make sure their kids have the same access to computers as those in more affluent districts; the second is they hope that computers will foster a more creative environment for teachers and students.
Sixteen-year-old Aaron Pharish(ph) has only had his school-issued MacBook for a week, but he's already customized the desktop, started using several programs including PowerPoint and loaded his entire class schedule into an application called School House.
Mr. AARON PHARISH (Student, Kansas City): This computer is just a really good way to organize everything I have to do, and, of course, there's the fun stuff on there like iTunes, iPhoto and PhotoBooth.
BEAUBIEN: Eighty percent of the students in the Kansas City, Kansas Public Schools live in poverty, and many of them, like Pharish, don't have computers at home. Before getting his MacBook, Pharish used computers at the library.
Ms CYNTHIA LANE (Assistant Superintendent, Kansas City Kansas Public High School): For our students, it really is a matter of equity.
BEAUBIEN: Assistant superintendent Cynthia Lane is one of those involved in developing the free-laptop program.
Ms. LANE: It was important to us to level the playing field to make sure that when our kids leave high school, they truly are prepared for college or for careers.
BEAUBIEN: One of the most controversial aspects of this program was whether students would be allowed to take their $1,300 laptops home with them. Some school board members were also concerned that kids would waste time on the Internet or go to inappropriate Web sites, so the laptops only have access to a tightly filtered network.
James Estus(ph), a biology teacher at Washington High School, says even on the first week, he seen a shift on how students engaged with the material in his class.
Mr. JAMES ESTUS (Biology Teacher, Washington High School): For example, I took them to a Web site called The World Clock.
BEAUBIEN: It's a Web site with ticking global tallies on various statistics like births, deaths, disease rates.
Estus asked his students to discuss a couple of subjects from the site on one of the school's online chat rooms. He says if he'd stood at the front of the class and done this exercise verbally, he'd expect three, maybe four of the students to dominate the conversation. But with the laptops, just about every student was engaged in the discussion.
Mr. ESTUS: And then someone would hop on and say was based on statistics, and that's not a conversation that would happen in a classroom. Someone would not get up and say it's based on math, man. You know, no way, that would not happen.
BEAUBIEN: But some educational researchers cautioned that the case for laptops is being oversold. Larry Cuban, a professor emeritus of Education at Stanford University, argues that computers alone won't change schools. And even in districts where they are successful, he says, they won't improve test scores for at least three years. Cuban says what's needed are huge investments in tech support and staff development so teachers can learn how to use laptops to teach.
Professor LARRY CUBAN (Education, Stanford University): Absence of those kinds of things, not much are going to happen, other than kids doing an awful lot of playing around on the computer.
BEAUBIEN: Across the country, a handful of schools that issued laptops to their students have given up on the programs and are taking them back, but in the Kansas City, Kansas High Schools, teachers and administrators admit that there's still in a honeymoon period, the students are excited about their new computers. The trick is going to be to sustain that excitement and keep it focused on learning.
Jason Beaubien, NPR News, Kansas City.
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