Sunday, January 12, 2014

Laptops on the way for I-SS, too

After a year of anticipation, the Iredell-Statesville Schools Board of Education decided Monday to go with the people's choice of laptop for students -- the Apple MacBook Air.

The computers, which are being purchased largely with money from the $20 million IMPACT grant, will be given to students, a couple schools at a time, beginning in either mid-February or March. By mid-April, every middle and high school student in the district should have a laptop in their hands that they can take home.

"I think folks are very excited. They're ready for the devices," said I-SS IMPACT grant director Patrick Abele. "This is a wonderful opportunity for our school district and community."

The arrival of the laptops will apparently make Iredell one of only a few multi-school district counties in the state - and maybe the nation -- that provides laptop computers to all students in grades 6 and up. The Mooresville Graded School District began supplying laptops to students in 2008 and now gives a take-home MacBook Air to all students in grades 4-12. Mooresville third graders have MacBooks to use at school only.

In December 2012, I-SS learned it had been awarded a $20 million federal Race to the Top District grant, about a quarter of which was designated to be spent on wireless technological devices. I-SS specifically called its grant project IMPACT, the goal of which is to implement a blended-learning approach in all classrooms where students alternately work alone on their laptop, together with peers or in a small group with the teacher.

Teachers were asked to start using the blended-learning method from the beginning of this school year, but when laptops arrive, the grant's full vision will begin to take shape.

I-SS' board of education voted 6-1 to move forward with the MacBook Air over the Windows-based Lenovo X131e laptop. I-SS board member Bryan Shoemaker dissented because he felt the Apple laptops, which cost 24 percent more initially, could potentially deplete the district's savings a few years down the road.

"If I could get the Cadillac, I'd get the Mac," I-SS Board Vice-chairman Charles Kelly said on Monday, speaking about what he has heard people say about computers.


I-SS' IMPACT grant designates roughly $5.4 million of the $20 million for laptops, but that amount did not account for Lake Norman High School students, who could not be included in the grant application due to free-and-reduced lunch percentage restrictions.

I-SS' laptop purchase will include LNHS, at an extra cost of $1.72 million for the school's nearly 2,000 students. There are 12,300 laptops being bought -- 11,474 for students, 649 for teachers and 177 spares.

Even without adding LNHS, the two choices board members decided between Monday were already over the grant's budget for laptops.

The school board's decision to buy Apple MacBook Air laptops will cost $10,725,602, at $872 each. Buying the Lenovo X131e would have cost $8,107,242, or $659 per laptop.

The difference between what was budgeted in the grant for laptops and the actual cost, around $5.3 million for the Apples as opposed to $2.7 million with the Lenovos, will have to be made up with local funds, and likely savings, said I-SS Chief Financial Officer Melissa Wike.

Shoemaker said Monday that he felt the purchase could tie up I-SS' fund balance for as many as six years. Fund balance has been used the last two years for a one-time bonus for teachers and to save many employees, including school resource officers and teacher assistants, from being laid off. Shoemaker also felt the majority of businesses use a Windows operating system, and that "we want to prepare (students) to go into the working world."

"How disappointed would people be if we went with the Lenovo option instead of the Mac?" asked Shoemaker. "Would that be a huge disappointment? Because when I look at these numbersthat's a big gamble."

I-SS hopes to recoup some of its initial payout by eventually re-selling the devices. Currently, the estimate to resell a MacBook Air is $300 versus $90 for the Lenovo X131e.

The computers are being paid for with a three-year lease, and at the end of three years, I-SS will own them outright. The MacBook Airs could potentially be sold for $3.7 million, while the Lenovos may only be worth $1.1 million at the end of the lease.

"Assuming you're going to get the residual, the two products cost-wise in the end are not far off," Wike said.

Several board members acknowledged they were taking a risk with the initial purchase, but felt it was the right choice.

"This is not the first five-story building we've jumped off of," said board member John Rogers.


The board based its decision largely on the recommendation of central office administration, who said the Apple product had better hardware, more pre-loaded software, a better track record for safety and viruses and simpler technical support, as well as being the overwhelming winner in surveys.

I-SS chose 120 students and teachers to pilot an Apple laptop and tablet, and a Windows-based laptop and tablet, in November and December. Of those, 76 percent selected the Apple laptop as their first choice in a survey. In another separate survey of 370 teachers and students, 46 percent preferred an Apple operating system, with 28 percent selecting Windows and others choosing Chromebook or Android..

David Blattner, executive director of technology and media services for I-SS, said the Apple laptop was a "higher quality product and better geared toward the educational environment."


Kristie Love, a science teacher at West Iredell Middle School, spoke to the board Monday about the enthusiasm she felt for her students. Her classes have been using laptops from carts that are spread throughout the district for recent projects, including a virtual stream activity. When students are allowed on the computers, Love said, they are focused, engaged and enjoying themselves.

"It's not only fun for the kids. It's fun for the teachers," Love said. "I know that when I'm having fun, my kids are having fun."

Love also pointed out that the laptops will give students "access to the latest knowledge." Money for hard-copy textbooks has dried up in the state, and buying online versions of textbooks, or just using the Internet for research, is much cheaper.

Jennifer Lloyd, a Spanish teacher at Statesville High School, said Monday that using computers has allowed her students to work at their own pace in a way that wasn't possible before. Now, students who have completed assignments and want to work ahead will have the resources to do so, while the teacher works closely with those needing help. Personalizing instruction is a goal of the IMPACT grant.

"It really changed the whole dynamic of the classroom and helped with that differentiation piece that I'd been struggling with for years," Lloyd said about the blended-learning approach.


There will be a $50 yearly insurance charge for students to use the laptops, the same as in the Mooresville Graded School District. However, the charge this school year will be pro-rated to $20. Students on free-and-reduced lunch, or those experiencing financial problems, will be given special consideration.

"Any parent that has a hardship or a concernthey can apply for a waiver, and we'll have a committee and process in place," Abele said.

The insurance fee covers accidents, not negligence, said Abele. For example, accidentally spilling a drink on a laptop, and causing damage, would be negligence. Parents will be expected to pay for negligent damages above the $50 fee, with the cost subsidized in some way by the overall pool of insurance money.

The laptops will also have Internet restrictions placed on them, with different filters for elementary, middle and high school students. Blattner said social media sites Facebook and Twitter will be blocked, as well as parts of YouTube for elementary and middle school students.

Abele said teachers would have to proactively monitor their students' activity in order to keep the laptops from being a distraction instead of a tool for learning.

"Utilizing devices in an instructional setting will always require diligent teachers," Abele said.

Students will be allowed to take the laptops home, although they will have to be turned in during summer. The Internet restrictions will still be in place outside of school.

I-SS Board Chairman Dr. David Cash said Monday that he believed teachers and administration were showing courage by implementing the IMPACT grant and all its components. He encouraged the educators to be inventive in their methods, and to be willing to risk failure at times to succeed.

"The country is watching us," said Cash, noting that the U.S. Department of Education awarded the grant. "We're expected to use (the money) wisely and be innovative."

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