SalemNews.com, Salem, MA

June 10, 2010

In Beverly, laptops all around, but parents have to pay

By Cate Lecuyer
staff writer

BEVERLY — A new program at Beverly High will equip every student with a new laptop computer to prepare kids for a high-tech future. But there's a catch.

The money for the $900 Apple MacBooks will come out of parents' pockets.

"You're kidding me," parent Jenn Parisella said when she found out she'd have to buy her sophomore daughter, Sky, a new computer. "She has a laptop. Why would I buy her another laptop?"

Sky has a Dell. Come September 2011, every student will need an Apple. They'll bring it to class and use it for homework. Superintendent James Hayes sees the technology as an essential move to prepare kids for the future. The School Committee approved the move last year, and Hayes said he's getting the news out now so families can prepare.

"We have one platform," Hayes said. "And that's going to be the Mac."

Parents can pay for the computers upfront or lease them from the district, with the option to buy after three years. The payments should work out to about $20 to $25 per month, Hayes said. The cost also includes free tech support.

"We realize for some families that will be a stretch," he said. In those cases, the district will provide financial assistance.

Students who don't participate will be able to borrow a school-provided laptop during the day, but they won't be able to take it home, Hayes said.

Providing laptops to all 1,200 students at Beverly High would cost the school about $1 million, Technology Director Judy Miller said. Last year, the district spent $66,569 on technology.

"Realistically, we'd never get there," she said.

'More and more of this'

Beverly will be the first school district in eastern Massachusetts to launch the laptop program.

While Gateway Regional Middle School in the western Massachusetts town of Huntington also charges parents, other schools in the state provide laptops for free.

Berkshire County schools in North Adams and Pittsfield have been using laptops since 2003, and the Lilla G. Frederick Pilot Middle School in Dorchester has since 2005. Those programs are funded through a combination of state earmarks, private and corporate sponsors, and the local school districts, said Matt Mervis, an educational technology consultant who helped get the programs going.

"There's a lot of movement in that direction," he said. "There's a strong consensus that we'll see more and more of this."

Unfortunately, Massachusetts hasn't continued its financial commitment to fund one-on-one laptops, he said.

"We've had really good results," he said. "But it's not something that the state Legislature has cycled back."

Maine, on the other hand, introduced the program in 2002, and it's currently in all middle schools and more than half of the high schools in the state, said Jeff Mao, learning technology and policy director for the Maine Department of Education.

The computers — all 70,000 of them this year — are purchased by the state, which is then reimbursed by the schools. The cost comes out of the budget. The state considers the laptops essential to learning, much like textbooks, he said.

"Families pay in the fact that they're taxpaying citizens," Mao said.

But both he and Mervis said asking families to pay is not uncommon, and many such programs exist throughout the country.

High-tech school

In Beverly, the new high school academic wing includes a built-in wireless infrastructure designed to support laptops — and any other devices that emerge. Future students' purchases will change along with the latest technology.

"This is what we're going to start with," Miller said of the laptops. "Who knows where it will go."

For the district, the program alleviates the cost of having to buy new computers when the old ones become obsolete — something that happens every six years.

It also eliminates most computer labs.

"For the new building, it made no sense to spend $1.8 million in extra rooms for computer labs," Miller said. Instead, the money will go toward software and teacher training, which started two years ago.

"We'd be spending the money in the right places," she said.

In March, the district sent out surveys about the laptop program and received positive feedback, he said.

"We really think a lot of families will want to do this," Hayes said. "Hopefully, they'll see the value in their kids having their own laptops."

Briscoe Middle School PTO co-president Mercene Perry, who has a sophomore son, said she supports the idea.

"Anything to compete with the rest of the world is good to have," she said.

Most students will eventually buy a computer when they go to college anyway, so having the option to own the laptop is great, she said.

The district considered PCs but decided to go with MacBooks because Apple offers a better package with educational and technical support, Hayes said. Plus, the software the district would have to purchase for a PC adds up.

"When it came down to it, there was a minimal difference in savings," he said.

Students who already have MacBooks will have to make sure they include all the necessary specs.

Apple will also provide free technical support at the high school. A teacher is becoming certified through the company, and students in tech support classes will get hands-on experience fixing other students' computers if they break. The school will provide a replacement laptop while it's being worked on.

It's the way the world is heading, Hayes said.

"Our graduates will face a world that will depend upon the use of technology to communicate, innovate and solve problems. We believe that world will be wireless and use handheld technology."

But if that's the case, it should be paid for by the public schools, Parisella said.

"We're paying all the fees for sports and extracurricular stuff," she said. "You figure academics are covered. I'm surprised more than anything. And kind of disappointed."

Staff writer Cate Lecuyer can be reached at clecuyer@salem news.com.