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CLINTON, Miss.—When Kelsi Collins was first given a laptop last year at Clinton High School, she hesitated to change from years of reading textbooks and writing assignments by hand to researching topics and typing papers online. It didn’t help that, after she’d ignored teachers’ warnings to back up her work, her computer crashed and she lost ‘everything’ just nine weeks into the school year.
Still, within a few months, Collins was hooked.
“I use it for absolutely everything,” said Collins, who will start her senior year in August. “I don’t think I could go back to a textbook.”
The partly rural, partly suburban Clinton Public School District, in central Mississippi, is regarded by many districts as a model when it comes to technology use in classrooms. Every student in grades K-12 has an iPad or a laptop, and kids in grades 6-12 have a special backpack for carrying the device home. Enrollment in the district has increased by nearly 300 students since the 2011-12 school year, which some say is due to the allure of the technology. Administrators from other school districts have eagerly studied Clinton to learn how to implement their own digital learning programs.
But Clinton’s success has yet to be replicated to a large degree in the poorest and most rural parts of Mississippi — the “least-wired” state in the country according to a 2011 Census survey. More than half of Mississippians have no Internet at home, and 41 percent have no access to the Internet at all.
Mississippi is so far behind on technology use in schools, it earned an “F” on a“digital report card” published this year by Digital Learning Now, a group that advocates for more online learning. The rankings examined whether schools have high-speed broadband, whether teachers and students have Internet-capable devices, and whether the states have met certain benchmarks to ensure effective use of technology.
In Mississippi, this technology access gap only compounds the state’s most persistent educational problems. In the 2011-12 school year, only 75 percent of students graduated in four years, compared to the national average of 80 percent. After students graduate, they often struggle to find jobs. Nearly 20 percent of youth ages 16 to 24 are out of school and not working, the highest rate in the nation.
Advocates say that access to the Internet and technology can close critical information gaps by helping students find college and scholarship information, job applications, and educational resources like study guides and practice tests.
David Conley, director of the Center for Education Policy Research at the University of Oregon says interaction with technology is also crucial to preparing students for the tasks they’ll be expected to complete in postsecondary education.
“Think about what’s going to happen to those young people when they try to go to a college class that expects them to use new technology,” Conley said. “Any type of a problem will stop them in their tracks.”
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Uneven access to technology, Conley added, is only widening the gap between the haves and the have-nots.
Nationwide, schools that haven’t yet integrated technology often face a basic problem: TheirInternet connection is too weak and their laptops—if they even have them— are too old to handle whole classrooms of students spending most or even part of their day online.
Fewer than 20 percent of teachers said their school’s Internet connection meets their teaching needs,according to the White House. And according toa survey of schools by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), half of schools and libraries that apply for federal subsidies have “lower speed Internet connectivity than the average American home — despite having, on average, 200 times as many users.”
In 2013 the Obama administration launched a new initiative, calledConnectEd, meant to increase broadband access, train teachers in how to better use technology and use model districts to demonstrate what works. But major obstacles remain, including the enormous costs of bringing more students, especially those in the most disadvantaged schools, online.
“We have some amazing schools and we have a lot of places where you can see this happening now. But we have a tremendous lack of equity,” said Karen Cator, president of Digital Promise, a nonprofit that helps school districts improve their use of technology. “We have a lot of work to do on this.”
In some cases, schools lack staff members with a knowledge of technology, and many face skepticism among educators, school board members and parents about whether technology can make enough of a difference to make the costs worthwhile.
Some districts in the state are more behind than others. A 2009 audit of the Tate County School District in north Mississippi found that the computers used for a vocational program were running Windows 3.0, a system from 1990.
In the past few years, some districts in the state have cobbled together funds from savings or grants to start programs like Clinton’s that provide a laptop or iPad to each student. This fall, students in pre-kindergarten through 12th grade will receive iPads or laptops in the Corinth School District, just south of the Tennessee border. In the Delta town of Clarksdale, the district will use a federal grant to roll out a one-to-one device program and provide technology to students who are behind in school.
In the Appalachian region of the state, which covers northeast Mississippi, some school districts have qualified for non-competitive grants from the Appalachian Regional Commission, a federal agency that provides financial support to areas in 13 states. Some districts like Water Valley, just south of Oxford, have used that grant money to buy computers and upgrade bandwidth so students can interact with more technology even though they don’t each have a laptop.
But for many schools in Mississippi, the priority with technology has been preparing for new online tests that will launch in 2015. The tests are aligned to the new Common Core standards, which Mississippi adopted in 2010.
Schools in Mississippi have been underfunded by the state by more than $1 billion over the past six years, which means many have struggled to buy basic supplies like pencils and paper while also upgrading bandwidth and computer labs. For many schools, it has been a strain on budgets to buy enough laptops for testing, and districts that do not have a surplus of funds or grant money have few options to expand technology.
In 2011 in Clinton, the district realized it would take a month for all its students to take the new online tests using the limited technology they had. Kameron Ball, director of technology for the Clinton Public School District, said that spreading the testing out across a month would give students who tested later more time to prepare than their peers, “just because the district didn’t have the technology.”
But Ball hesitated to adopt a “bring your own device” program, which has been embraced by some school districts across the country, allowing students to bring their own phone or tablet to school to use during lessons.
“Asking parents to add an iPad to their supply list didn’t seem equitable,” Ball said. “It just made sense to make sure all of our students received the same device.”
So the district bought nearly 2,700 laptops and about 2,500 iPads for students. It took years of preparation and planning to roll out the digital program. The district used savings and money from a local millage rate increase to fund the program, which cost more than $4 million.
More than 4,600 students attend Clinton’s schools, and about 45 percent of them receive free- or reduced-price lunch, a measure of poverty.
A team of administrators from Clinton visited a successful technology program in North Carolina, and then began to transition teachers from desktop computers to Apple laptops. All teachers received a laptop and had to be trained in the new technology, and the district held meetings throughout the community to invest parents in the idea. The district even hired several technology specialists. “I stole them from the Apple store,” Ball said with a smile.
While there’s no definitive evidence that technology improves suspension rates or behavior, Ball has noticed a positive change in student behavior since they received the technology. Suspensions in grades 6-12 decreased by nearly 30 percent in the first year of the program, and referrals to the office dropped as well.
Conley from the University of Oregon cautions that as schools roll out more technology, they need to ensure that it is used to help students be self-sufficient and productive.
“If you go to the average school the differences are often so great from classroom to classroom,” Conley said. While some teachers embrace it, Conley said that other teachers shy away from it or don’t really know how to use it within their classroom.
And even as districts in Mississippi add more technology, there’s no guarantee that it will improve education in the state. Research on the benefits of technology in classrooms is mixed, although some studies have found that using computers boosts student learning. A 2011 study found that technology can help students learn, although it tends to be more effective when technology supports student learning rather than directly delivering content or instruction.
Students at Clinton High School say that in most classes, they use the laptops to do research and type up reports and projects. In a biology class, students read the textbook online and complete interactive activities based on the material they’ve learned. About 40 percent of the textbooks used in the district are now digital or online, and the high school also adopted an online program that allows students to submit their work to their teachers and receive feedback.
Genesis Johnson, a 15-year-old at Clinton High School, said the computers have taught students more responsibility and self-discipline, and introduced them to basic Internet functions, like sharing documents on Google Drive, and using email. (Each student received a school email account.) “In elementary school they’re preparing you for junior high, in junior high they’re preparing you for high school,” Johnson said. “In high school you think you’re getting prepared for college, but you’re really not. Until you get those computers.”
A cautious approach in Greenville
The Delta town of Greenville overlooks the Mississippi river, nearly two hours northwest of Clinton. By many accounts, the Greenville Public School District’s precarious financial status makes it an unlikely early adopter of a technology program like Clinton’s. More than 93 percent of students qualify for free- or reduced-price lunch, and four of the district’s 10 schools received a failing grade from the state in the 2011-12 school year. Only about 21 percent of the district’s revenue comes from local sources, meaning the district must rely on federal aid or state aid to fund new initiatives.
But the poverty level made it even more imperative to start a technology program, said Leeson Taylor, superintendent of the Greenville Public School District. “We’re trying to be proactive and act on behalf of our students,” Taylor said.
Before he was superintendent, Taylor worked in the district’s federal programs division, where he helped the district find ways to be frugal and save money for the program. The district has used reserve money and federal Title I funding, which it receives for low-income students, to fund its new program. This fall, all students in sixth through twelfth grade will receive an iPad, while younger students will use iPads on carts in each classroom.
Administrators in Greenville have been wary of moving too fast with their program. After hearing about a district in another state where kids were robbed after receiving digital devices from schools, they delayed rollout until they could find volunteers to monitor children as they walked home after school. They also took note of Los Angeles Unified School District, which had to put a halt to their $1 billion iPad plan after a disastrous rollout where kids quickly figured out how to hack security settings and access non-educational content online.
Taylor said that some parents were skeptical of giving children such an expensive item, and not every teacher was enthusiastic about the change. “There are some model classrooms,” Taylor said, but also some classrooms where teachers had to be dragged “kicking and screaming into the 21st century.”
One of the district’s teachers who has embraced technology is Reginald Forte, a fifth grade teacher at Em Boyd Elementary who describes himself as “a tech person.” Forte said that he uses iPads most in math, science, and social studies to expand the amount and quality of information students can use.
“They have direct access to the latest information,” Forte said. “I may not know it, but they can go right to it.”
On one of the final weeks of school this spring, students in Forte’s class were working in groups on an end-of-year project. At a cluster of desks in the front of the room, fifth-graders Kiara McPherson and Jeremiah Hilliard were bent over iPads, searching through pictures on the Internet.
They were preparing a digital presentation about the properties of light, which they would later have to present to the class. Kiara clicked on a picture of a triangle prism and slid her iPad over to Jeremiah’s desk.
“Jeremiah, do you like this picture? It’s using refraction,” she said.
Jeremiah examined the picture closely. “Yes.”
With a flurry of motion, Kiara quickly downloaded the image, cropped the picture, and dragged it into the digital presentation she and Jeremiah were creating.
One of the goals of technology is to engage students, or make them more excited about learning, said Taylor, as he stepped into Forte’s class to watch the students’ presentations. “A lot of our kids are below the federal poverty level,” he added. “If we don’t build those experiences for them, then a lot of them will not have those experiences.”