Chase Elementary

Daequan Adams, a fourth grader at Chase Elementary School, uses a tablet computer to do research in an English class. (Barbara Haddock Taylor, Baltimore Sun / January 30, 2014)

From sprawling Los Angeles to tiny Talbot County on Maryland's Eastern Shore, educators are experimenting with the next wave of technology in schools: a tablet or laptop in every student's hand. The results have drawn national attention — for both their embarrassing failures and their successes.

Now Baltimore County is moving ahead with a five-year, $150 million rollout that will make it the first large school system in the state to plunge into the ambitious and potentially risky initiative.

School leaders nationwide argue that they must keep pace with their tech-savvy youngsters and provide students more equal access to technology. Baltimore County Superintendent Dallas Dance says his district's program, which will start in some elementary schools in the fall, is designed to personalize learning and "allow our students to be learners 24/7, which is how we will prepare globally competitive graduates."

But across the country, some high-profile initiatives have turned into expensive disasters this school year.

Just days after Los Angeles distributed iPads in a number of high schools last fall as part of a $1 billion technology initiative, 300 students had broken through the security wall to do what teenagers do naturally — use social media. Schools in Guilford, N.C., were so plagued by equipment failures, including broken screens and overheating chargers, that the district recalled all 5,000 of the devices for safety reasons.

Seeing these missteps and others, Miami-Dade, Fla., school leaders put their technology purchases on hold and said recently that they will implement their program more slowly than first anticipated.

Officials with the 113,000-student Baltimore County system are undeterred by the problems elsewhere. The county can "learn from the frustrations and challenges of those who go before us. We are starting at the elementary level. We are doing that very deliberately," said Ryan Imbriale, the district's executive director of digital learning.

Baltimore County is reviewing bids from a number of companies for laptops or tablets that come with keyboards, which will be delivered in August to first- through third-graders in 10 elementary schools. On March 11, administrators plan to take a proposed contract to the school board, which could vote on it that night.

Imbriale said the county is trying to emulate a more successful model that has been used in Mooresville, N.C., and is sending principals and administrators there to be trained.

"You need to start small and grow," said Scott Smith, Mooresville schools' chief technology officer. "It takes time and there is a lot of culture change that has to happen."

Smith said the school system began distributing laptops five years ago to high school students in the 5,500-student district north of Charlotte.

It then moved slowly down the grades. The school system decided to have a lease-to-purchase contract that requires annual payments for the MacBooks and MacBook Airs. The annual cost for the computers and software is about $300 to $325 a student, Smith said.

Students in grades four through 12 are allowed to take the computers home; the laptops are in hard cases, and students are issued padded backpacks to transport them. The number of broken computers has been low, Mooresville officials said.

Mooresville schools are considered among the best in the state, but Smith said it's unclear whether the digital conversion has improved academic achievement. Attendance, graduation and dropout rates, and test scores have all improved in the past five years.

"I think it is a contributing factor," Smith said. "It hasn't been dramatic, but it has been slow progress. … All measurements are going in the right direction."

In Baltimore County, Chase Elementary School Principal Douglas Elmendorf began buying laptops three years ago after receiving a $30,000 private donation and federal money. Students do not receive their own laptops; the devices are on carts available to teachers to use in their classes.

Elmendorf says teachers have adapted instruction to the technology. Chase Elementary is one of the first 10 county schools that will be issued new, personalized computers or tablets next year, and Elmendorf said he is not worried about his teachers adapting.

On a recent morning in a first-grade classroom, Chase students read a multiple-choice question and then clicked a device that registered their answers on the board. The teacher could tell how much of the class had picked up the lesson and whether she needed to review the concepts.

Down the hall, fifth-grader Marissa Ayers was working with a partner on a small laptop, researching important events related to women's suffrage. Their assignment was to write an argument based on their research.

"We can learn so much more than looking through multiple textbooks. On the Internet it is right there," Marissa said.