Maine expands laptop program

Posted Sept. 03, 2009, at 9:30 p.m.

FARMINGDALE, Maine — The state that was first to provide laptops to every seventh- and eighth-grader in its public schools is taking its campaign to the high schools, and Maine’s top education official vowed Thursday that every high school student will have a laptop computer within two years.

The 67,000 computers now being distributed at more than half of the high schools will give students the skills they’ll need to compete in the workplace, said Don Siviski, superintendent of Regional School Unit 2.

“The competitive world that these students are going to be engaged in — it isn’t only the United States, the Northeast or Maine. Their competitors are going to be all over the world. They need to be savvy,” he said. “Schools need to join the 21st century to prepare these kids for that world.”

Under a four-year, $64 million lease, Apple Inc. will provide each student with an Apple MacBook with a 13-inch screen, 160-gigabyte hard drive, built-in camera and a full slate of software, as well as wireless routers, technical support and warranty repairs. The cost is $240 a year per computer.

Maine Education Commissioner Sue Gendron wanted to expand the program into all of the state’s 119 public high schools, but had to settle for participation from only 64 this fall. The narrow window for high schools to sign onto the program over the summer and the nation’s economic turmoil prevented full participation, she said.

Still, Gendron said, Maine’s program — the first statewide program to provide laptops to students — also is the nation’s largest. The students are allowed to take the computers home, but don’t own them. The laptops have to be returned to the school in the spring.

“Our young people really are digital natives,” she said. “We don’t want them to unplug when they come to school.”

On Thursday, 10 students at Hall-Dale High School looked over some of the laptops that will be handed out over the coming weeks. They quickly began putting the laptops through the paces, creating comic strips and Andy Warhol-style photos with the built-in camera.

Unlike most high schools, Hall-Dale already issued laptops to its students. So the Apple MacBooks will replace the older laptops at the school.

Michael Reinhard, a 17-year-old high school senior, said he used to type reports in the sixth grade and it is hard to imagine going back to a typewriter. By contrast, he was asked as a high school sophomore to produce a podcast on German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck.

“Everyone tells me that education is supposed to be creative. I’ve never seen more creative projects for education than with these MacBooks,” he said.

The laptop program began under Gov. Angus King, who wanted to eliminate the so-called “digital divide” between wealthy and poor kids.

Maine started the first-in-the-nation program by distributing more than 30,000 computers to every seventh- and eighth-grader in the state’s public schools in 2002 and 2003.

The state still pays for the laptops for middle schoolers, but school districts were asked to share the cost for high school laptops.

The state provides each district with $289 per student for technology, but some districts were already using the money in other ways. Superintendents, then, were able to use federal stimulus funding, grants, bonds and other means of funding the program.

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