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.
She and her deskmate, Brooke Stevenson, hope the county will allow them to take home the computers they will get next year. Marissa pointed out that she could discuss homework problems with friends over Skype. She'd like the county to buy the lighter tablets, but Brooke believes laptops offer more flexibility.
Baltimore County has not decided whether it will choose tablets or a laptops or whether students will be allowed to take the devices home. Imbriale said if the school district decides on tablets, they will be equipped with a keyboard.
Baltimore County is the only large school system in Maryland to plot such an ambitious path, though a number of others, such as Howard County, have piloted the idea in a few schools.
Students in a Howard middle school where iPads are being used appear to be more engaged, and the technology has enabled teachers to be more creative in how they teach, said Rebecca Amani-Dove, a spokeswoman for the district. The district is evaluating the pilot program to "help the school system make decisions about the best models for technology," she said.
In a program that started in 2004, Talbot County gives laptops to high school freshmen that they keep for four years. Students are allowed to take the laptops home and pay a $40 user fee, and also pay if the laptops are damaged. Each June, all laptops are turned into the schools for software updates.
"What we find is that our kids are very responsible," said interim Superintendent Kelly Griffith. "We definitely are seeing our students more engaged in the classroom. We are seeing them apply that knowledge."
The next challenge will be to expand the program to the middle and elementary schools, she said.
The advent of testing that will match the new, more rigorous Common Core curriculum will increase pressure on school districts around Maryland to ramp up technology by the 2017-2018 school year, when all tests will be taken online.
Despite the popularity of the technology and the push to get it in schools, there's little research showing that it improves learning, said Emory University English professor Mark Bauerlein, author of the book "The Dumbest Generation."
He believes the devices can be counterproductive. Students who are trying to look at three screens at the same time have lost the ability to focus for a long period of time on reading and writing, he said.
"You can't understand a complex text if you are multitasking," he said. He added that most teenagers, when handed the new devices won't say, "Oh, wow. This is an amazing new scholarly apparatus in my hands!"
And, he noted, the new technology is expensive. "What could that money be used for otherwise?" he asked.
It is also particularly expensive if something goes wrong.
The parents, teachers and students in Guilford, N.C., were excited about the prospect of getting laptops, and the school district had trained teachers in advance.
"The training camps went well," said Nora Carr, the school district's chief of staff. But then they passed out 5,000 new laptops last August. "It came to a screeching halt over concerns we had about the quality, durability and safety of the devices. We are still in negotiations with the company."
In Los Angeles, the $1 billion bill for new technology is being funded by a bond issue; some of the money went to pay for curriculum, which will have to be updated in a few years at an added cost.
Baltimore County will try to reallocate money from existing funds to pay for its technology purchases, a model that is being tried in Houston public schools, where Dance worked as an assistant superintendent. Dance is cutting per-pupil funding to elementary schools by 13 percent and to middle and high schools by 5 percent next year to begin paying for the rollout.
Lloyd Brown, the county's assistant superintendent of technology, said the cuts won't hurt students because the school system is taking over the management and expense of every school's tech needs — from printers to online report cards. He acknowledges that those savings probably won't be enough to fully fund the project, though, and said the district will request additional funds from the County Council.
After the pilot program in the 10 elementaries, known as "lighthouse" schools, the system plans to give the devices to students in grades one through three in the remaining elementary schools.
Middle schools would then get the devices during the 2016-2017 school year, and high schools the following year. If they can, digital learning director Imbriale said, they will try to speed up the timeline for high school students. Eventually, even kindergartners will get some devices.
Imbriale said the focus of the initiative is on what the technology can provide in the classroom.
"What we want for our students to have in the classroom is a level of instruction that is highly engaging and that meets their individual needs," he said. "We want to give a device to every student in the system and open the door to a wealth of information."
Tribune Newspapers contributed to this article.