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A school district in California is attempting to transform how kids learn with iPads. Rural Coachella Valley Unified School District, southeast of Palm Springs, is one of the state's poorest communities, where more than 80 percent of the children live in poverty. Every student in Coachella, K through 12, will receive an iPad, and many parents hope the initiative will help close the achievement gap with wealthier districts.
But as NPR's Eric Westervelt reports, the plan faces skeptics and big hurdles.
ERIC WESTERVELT, BYLINE: In an earlier life, before becoming superintendent of the Coachella Valley's School District, Dr. Darryl Adams was keyboardist and singer with the pop rock band Xavion.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
WESTERVELT: You know, one hit, '80s big hair, and a slot on Hall and Oates "Big Bam Boom" tour.
DR. DARRYL ADAMS: We were the first all-black rock band on MTV, by the way. We had an album out and we were on tour with...
WESTERVELT: Today, there's still a touch of the showman about Dr. Adams, minus the muscle shirts and bad hair.
ADAMS: Everyone will have an iPad. So it's going to be exciting.
WESTERVELT: As a kid, music was his passion. And now Dr. Adams sees Coachella Valley's iPads-for-all initiative as key to his efforts to try to individualize lessons to what excites kids in school. Adams argues that since the federal No Child Left Behind initiative 10-plus years ago his and many other districts have too often failed to inspire kids. Instead, he says, we've just been teaching them how to take tests.
ADAMS: And that's not what education is about. So for the first time in our history as a nation, I think in the world, we're going to be able to individualize and personalize education. Every student will have an individual education plan on how they learn, what they learn, learning styles, what are their passions, what do they like, what do they don't like. And we can really tailor that and customize that for each and every student.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: If we search different school districts...
WESTERVELT: The district has set up a kind of war room in a trailer to coordinate the massive distribution of nearly 20,000 iPads and all it entails: training, security, curriculum, parental consent, and more. Kids seventh grade and up get to take their tablets home; sixth and below have to leave it at school. The district has leased the tablets from Apple at a cost of nearly $9 million. Voters passed a bond, backed by property taxes, to pay for much of it.
Seventh and eighth grade English teacher Patricia Inghram is one of dozens of teachers in the district's iPad pilot program. She's been using them extensively in her classes for more than a year.
PATRICIA INGHRAM: I've been around a long time. You know, I'm the old teacher. I started out with the chalkboards. So I feel comfortable enough to use it at this point and I think they're fantastic tools.
WESTERVELT: Parents and teachers have concerns about security. Recently, Los Angeles High School students easily got around restrictions on their district-issued iPads. They simply deleted their personal profile info and they could easily surf the night away, stream music, and play online games. L.A. then put the brakes on the program. Other districts across the country have also delayed rollouts because of similar security concerns.
Inghram says she has her kids take a tech oath on digital citizenship and proper use of the iPad. No cyber bullying, no porn, inappropriate pictures, and no social media during class. Projects she's done in class include using the tablets to produce podcasts, linking via Skype with an expert at the Edgar Allan Poe Museum and virtually visiting the historic Globe Theater in the U.K. while studying the Bard.
INGHRAM: These are kids that are never going to - a lot of them - leave this area. But being able to talk to someone who is sitting in the Globe Theatre and show them around the building and answer their questions about Shakespeare while you're reading his sonnets is an experience that, you know, it opens their eyes. And that's what this technology allows them to do.
WESTERVELT: One geometry teacher here has had a wildly successful program using the online world-building game Minecraft with his students and the iPad. But some teachers, parents and kids worry that there's a kind of iPad boosterism here that borders on the naive. School district officials are promoting the tablets as central to improving academic achievement. But the research on that is mixed at best.
At Coachella Valley High - one of two high schools in the district - junior Cheyenne Hernandez wraps up geometry class. She wonders if the iPad money might be better spent on other things.
CHEYENNE HERNANDEZ: I feel like it's just going to be a waste, because people either are going to steal them, break them, like they're just going to treat them like a textbook. And like in a student's opinion, most of the students are just going to go on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, that's what they're mostly going to do.
WESTERVELT: So drive about ten miles south from Thermal - itself hardly a major metropolis - and you get to the aptly named Desert Mirage High School. Besides some date palm groves, there's really nothing out here but the high school. The nearest restaurant is about five miles away. So librarian Rebecca Flannigan says the high school is the center of activity for many kids and they're eagerly awaiting the iPad initiative.
REBECCA FLANNIGAN: Because our budgets are very slim, we can't always buy the book. There's a new series, divergent series, teen fiction, they all want it.
WESTERVELT: Yet Flannigan's excitement about quickly getting eBooks and more is tempered by deep skepticism. She's a former teacher and her biggest concern is curriculum. Coachella Valley wants to make the iPads central to efforts to meet new Common Core state standards for Math and English. There are new Common Core apps coming out all the time. But Flannigan wonders which ones the district will use, how well it will work and how it will all get integrated.
FLANNIGAN: That's where I see the difficulty. The disconnect is between giving student iPad to use and then making it relevant for the classroom. Like, you have to put curriculum on it or it doesn't mean anything. I mean, it's a toy for them. I mean, I hate to say that because I think it's forward thinking. I think it's great. I just - there's a lot of bugs to be worked out.
WESTERVELT: Perhaps the biggest bug is connectivity. Significant parts of the Coachella Valley are not covered by high-speed Internet. And even where it is available, many families here simply can't afford the service.
ELI SERVIN: So what are the teachers' goals to use it? Like, what are they planning to have us do with them? Are they going to be teaching us on there?
WESTERVELT: Tenth grader Eli Servin has a lot of questions. He's in a special education class at CV High School here. His mom died two years ago. He now lives with his grandmother. His teacher says he blossomed while using the iPad at school to help coordinate a recycling project. But at home, he doesn't have an Internet connection, except when his sister is around with her mobile phone he can tap into.
SERVIN: Most of my family have hotspots, so like I use their Wi-Fi.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Can't you go to McDonald's and, like, connect it there? A lot of people do that.
SERVIN: Yeah, yeah.
WESTERVELT: But McDonalds and cell phone hotspots don't always cut it. The district is using part of the iPad money from the bond measure to boost Internet capacity for its far-flung schools. But Superintendent Adams acknowledges that expanding connectivity to homes in the valley's many poor and rural areas will be much harder.
ADAMS: I've told my staff, if we have to park a bus in the neighborhood with a Wi-Fi tower on it or whatever, we will do that to make sure that our students are connected.
WESTERVELT: Connectivity will be one of many issues people in California and across the nation will be intensely watching as Dr. Adams, the former pop rocker, tries to pull off his biggest show yet. Eric Westervelt, NPR News.
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