iPads

Stephanie McGurk's eighth-grade class at Ocean Charter School turn on their L.A. Unified-distributed iPads this week for the first time. (Mark Boster / Los Angeles Times / November 7, 2013)

The eighth-graders in Stephanie McGurk's class at Ocean Charter School began a recent day as they usually do: reciting a verse celebrating nature. Next, they played scales on recorders as they sat in a classroom furnished with wood furniture, lamps, wicker baskets, artwork and plants.

Then McGurk did something incongruous in a school that avoids plastic toys, let alone technology: She handed each student an iPad.

By chance, Ocean Charter, a Westside school based on the Waldorf educational philosophy, became part of the much-debated $1-billion effort to provide an iPad to every student and teacher in the Los Angeles Unified School District.

As a charter school, Ocean is run independent of L.A. Unified. Still, under state law, charters are entitled to roughly equivalent learning conditions and L.A. Unified decided that charters operating on district property are eligible for iPads. The district selected Ocean because it uses classrooms on the campus of Westchester High, which was among the first 47 schools to receive the devices this fall.

And for Ocean, this created unique tensions. The school was caught between a philosophy that strictly limits technology and a school district determined to provide it.

Ocean asks parents to keep students away from technology and media on school nights. It also avoided computers, even for school work, until sixth grade.

A strict, private Waldorf school might not have even accepted the devices. For more than 100 years, Waldorf schools have emphasized child development over skill development.

Instead of plastic dolls with detailed faces, for example, young children in a Waldorf environment play with toys made of natural materials, such as wood, silk, wool and cotton -- that are unformed enough to stimulate the imagination. Schools encourage creative play and artistic expression; students often stay with the same teacher three years or more.

Some parents who subscribe to Waldorf methods don't let their children use technology at all; others limit screen time.

As a public school, Ocean cannot follow all Waldorf beliefs and practices. It has eliminated religious references, for example. It's also accepted annual standardized testing -- as well as the idea that the school will be accountable for academic results.

Still, a technological emphasis seems to cut against the grain.

Nearly every classroom has a garden as well as shelves of books, musical instruments and a wealth of art supplies. On a recent visit, fifth-graders were exploring mushrooms using their five senses.

Director Kristy Mack-Fett is aware that new state standardized tests will be given on computers and that new state learning standards require knowledge of technology. For those reasons, she's grateful for the devices.

At the same time, parents and teachers have shared their serious concerns freely, although there's been no rebellion.

"Most parents are plugged in," said parent Lisa Cahill. "It's not like they're off the grid." But until parents realized the younger students would only use iPads for testing, they were "a little freaked out."

"I don't want to be responsible for a $700 iPad," said parent Tamara Haas, who questioned the expense and wisdom of the program.

Mack-Fett was discomfited by a promotional video showing a classroom of students plugged into tablets with ear buds.

"This technology shouldn't replace a school community with people interacting in live situations and working through problems," she said.

Nor was she impressed with students writing on the touch screens with their fingers; Ocean instructors teach printing, then cursive writing over three years.

"The physical act of writing is important, both print and cursive," Mack-Fett said.