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Laptop Project Becomes Stunning Success for Maine Middle School - 2003-06-27

For the past year, every seventh grader in the state of Maine has been doing schoolwork on a laptop computer purchased by the state. The laptop project, which will extend to eighth grade next year, is one of the largest in the United States. There are 17,000 Apple i-books in use so far, and teachers say very few have been broken or misused. But some schools have tried harder than others to integrate the portable units into daily classwork. One school that state officials cite as a stunning success story is in one of the most economically depressed regions in the state.

Tucked behind a chain link gate in the heart of Maine's blueberry fields, Pembroke Elementary School isn't big enough to hold the nearly 150 students in Kindergarten through eighth grade. So about 20 seventh and eighth graders attend class in a white vinyl sided modular trailer attached to the gymnasium.

As the school year ends, Ann Davies, from the state department of education, has been observing how the computers have changed the way these children perform in school. "Students who before may not have looked as if they were working very hard, or who might not have looked like they were very smart are suddenly able to shine in ways they weren't even a year ago," she says.

Ms. Davies is gathering data on how the laptops have improved instruction, and behavior, in Maine's middle schools. That includes counting detention slips. Today, in Pembroke, there are three. School officials say this time last year there would have been ten times that many. The seventh grade absentee list would have been much longer as well, but teachers here say students can't wait to get to school to open their laptops, and they are usually too busy to get in trouble.

On one recent afternoon, the ten seventh graders in Debbie Jamieson's classroom are learning to use software to calculate sales tax on items priced on grocery store coupons. "If you can get into Appleworks spreadsheet please? Okay, I had asked you guys last week to collect some coupons, yesterday we categorized those coupons, remember? "

They've also been working hard on their final term projects, which they present to a smattering of parents in their classroom on a damp, chilly evening.

Stevie Ray Mahar plugs her computer into a projector and gives a confident, lavishly illustrated lecture, showing how each Apollo spacecraft evolved from the previous one. Afterwards, she says she wouldn't have tackled such a difficult topic without her laptop.

Other Pembroke students are using their machines to complete assignments electronically, gather local history, make imaginary trades on the stock market, and put together a traditional publication in an untraditional way. Kaylin Boden, Mia Mattell and Amanda Perry open a big ring binder with pages fresh from the laser printer. This is the yearbook that we made on out laptops, it's not quite finished yet but most things are done. It's a work in progress. Our personal pages we did all by ourselves in color instead of sending it away and putting it together," they say.

Before the laptops arrived, Pembroke's standardized test scores were so low that it was labeled a "failing school" by the federal Department of Education. But school principal Paula Smith says they are no longer on that dreaded list, thanks partly to the technological revolution. Not only are the kids more excited about learning, they're using their laptops to log onto the Internet to find sample questions to the Maine Educational Assessment test, so they can better prepare for it.

The students will take their laptops to eighth grade next year, and the in-coming seventh graders will get new ones. But that's where the state funding stops. Laptops will not be provided in high school. And that, says Ms. Smith, will be a huge step backwards. "Kids, in this school, may not be high performing in math and reading but I would stack them against anyone in technology right now, and their math and reading scores are improving. But right now they have the edge in technology and they deserve the right to use that and move ahead in that," she says.

But if the high schools want to jump into Maine's laptop program, they'll have to pay their own way, without help from the state. Some students will buy their own. Many others will do without. So the newly-narrowed digital divide could get wider again, just as high school freshmen are beginning to think about whether they want to go to college. Another worry, lawmakers could raid the laptop endowment if budget problems persist. The interest from that account is supposed to help fund continuing training for the roughly 4000 teachers using laptops. That training is not yet complete.

And Pembroke teacher Debbie Jamieson says some schools lag far behind others in laptop use. "There are some people who are absolutely not receptive to opening it up for weeks at a time, and other people that use it every day," she says.

Ms. Jamieson says teachers who are wary about the computers should be given the time to visit other schools where they have quickly become as big a part of daily classroom life as paper and pencils used to be.