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Arizona High School Chooses Laptops Over Textbooks

A new high school opened in Vail, Arizona, this past July with all the resources you would expect to find in classrooms these days -- except textbooks. Instead, every student received an Apple laptop computer… making Empire High School a pioneer in the growing use of technology in American education.

The idea for Empire High's all-laptop curriculum came as administrators, teachers and parents were making plans for the new school, which is located on the edge of Tucson. Calvin Baker, Superintendent of the Vail School District, says a committee visited classrooms that were making partial use of laptops, and came away with two distinct impressions. "One was that students in schools where laptops were being used were clearly more engaged," Mr. Baker says. "And the other impression was that we felt we could do more with laptops. Because we had the opportunity here of opening a new school, we could make them an integral part of what we do, and actually change the way we do things. And we sort of forced that issue by not buying any textbooks."

Teachers helped plan the school's wireless curriculum, often experimenting with different ideas in classrooms where they taught before. The result is a high school where laptops can be found everywhere from Spanish language to music to science class.

Michael Frank teaches a first year biology course, where students use their laptops to access instructions for their lab work, organize data, and graph the results. Mr. Frank says he has drawn on computer technology to teach classes at other schools in the past, but with laptops, students take a more active part in the process. "They will be putting together all the results from this experiment in a Power Point presentation for the class later," Mr. Frank says. "And I know I can just give them an address for a web site that has information and they can go look at it there. A lot of times with science, we use it because you can get immediate access to the most recent information. You don't have to wait 5 or 6 years for it to get into a textbook. So there's much more access to just a huge amount of data about things."

Vail School Superintendent Calvin Baker says Empire High had the advantage of being a new facility, so administrators could hire teachers committed to the laptop technology. Students could choose whether they wanted to attend the school, so they too are unusually enthusiastic. And since Empire just opened its doors, it had not already spent money on textbooks. "It costs roughly $500 to outfit a high school student with a complete set of textbooks for four years," he says. "So we took that money we would have invested in textbooks. We also took money we normally would have used to create computer labs around the school, and we used that to buy the laptops. The laptops cost us about $800 each."

Still, the pioneering effort posed a variety of challenges, says Mr. Baker. "One was simply the technological hurdles with having a place where 350 students can open up their laptops and all have good fast Internet access, and how to configure the laptops. Then the other challenge was finding the material. And then students are turning in most of their assignments via the web, so we researched the best ways of doing that."

There was a surprise once classes got underway as well. Matt Federoff, the school's Director of Technology, says using computers for fun doesn't always translate into the skills needed for use in the classroom. "We thought the kids would be better at computing than they actually are. Being able to drive your X-box or your I-pod is not the same thing as being able to take a computer, use it, create a document, save it with a file name, put it in a particular location and retrieve it. And that has been a real challenge."

But administrators say the system is working well overall, and students seem to agree. Sophomore Justin Platt says it's a relief not having to worry about having different textbooks for every class. "You keep a lot more organized. You don't have to worry about bringing all this different stuff every day. It's always there for you."

Kryssie Granillo, also a sophomore, says her grade point average has risen dramatically at Empire. "I'm always on the computers at home, so having one at school just makes it easier on me."

So is this the wave of the future? Calvin Baker believes more schools will move towards laptop instruction in the years ahead, but he says it will be hard to break old teaching and learning habits. And he stresses that the change has to be a matter of public choice. "We are right now in the middle of planning stages for a new elementary school. And the group of parents and teachers who are involved are asking the question, what are we going to do to make our school on the cutting edge of technology? And that's what I'm looking for," he says. "I'm looking for parents and teachers demanding this to happen. This is not a solution that is going to work imposed from above."

Calvin Baker also stresses that he is not trying to make Empire High a technology school. And he says quality education still has to be about things like hard work, self-discipline and outstanding teaching -- with laptops becoming a natural part of the classroom, just as they have become a natural part of workplaces across America.