Eager to give their students a leg up in the vast domain of computer technology, some private schools in the Baltimore area are requiring parents to buy laptops, much as they do pencils and spiral notebooks.
It's an emerging nationwide trend at costly private schools, an expensive leap from school labs where youngsters must compete for research time on a bank of computers. Instead, pupils as young as 9 or 10 are tapping into the Internet at their desks, obtaining material from the Library of Congress or the Smithsonian Institution.
"We didn't do it to just jump on the laptop bandwagon," said Merrill Hall, headmaster of the Calvert School, where all fifth-graders use $2,000 laptops purchased by parents. The school covers about a third of the cost.
"This way, our students have access to a wide realm of information," he said. "And in a few years, we will graduate students who will be able to use information in ways that we don't even realize now."
Recently, fifth-grade girls at Calvert downloaded pictures of ancient empires on their laptops while boys down the hall met a hulking sumo wrestler named Musashimaru as part of their study of the Far East. At the end of the day, the youngsters slung the soft laptop briefcases over their shoulders, along with their traditional backpacks.
The laptop trend is catching on at other schools too, despite initial grousing from parents already shelling out $11,000 a year or more in tuition.
"When we put the numbers down, there were some people who were concerned," Hall said.
Eighth- through 12th-graders at Oldfields in Glencoe must have laptops, and starting next year, Roland Park Country School will require them for seventh- and ninth-graders.
Garrison Forest School, which lends laptops to some students, will require that all upper school students own them by 2003. Gilman School, St. Paul's School for Girls and Notre Dame Preparatory School are considering similar moves.
Not all private schools are as eager to go the laptop way.
At Friends School, administrators and teachers worry about further complicating young lives -- simplicity is one of Quakerism's four basic tenets. At McDonogh, school officials say a home computer, linked to the school's e-mail system, is sufficient.
"You can travel a long way in the successful integration of technology in the classroom without mandating that students have laptops," said Tim Fish, McDonogh's director of instructional technology.
At Oldfields, a boarding school for girls, administrators are sold on the idea.
As part of a recent psychology class project, students used their laptops to create an interactive drug education site, said Oldfields spokesman Ret Talbot.
"Students [use a mouse to] click on certain drugs such as cocaine or ecstasy to get more information about side effects and addiction," he said. "That's a powerful example of technology in the classroom."
Two years ago, Oldfields was one of the first private schools in the country to team up with Toshiba and Microsoft to bring laptops into the classroom.
Since then, more Baltimore-area schools have made the jump to wireless laptops, introducing new classroom activities, including PowerPoint slide presentations that incorporate graphics, music and student-generated artwork.
The eagerness to turn out graduates knowledgeable about laptops is common among educators.
During the past three years, Microsoft's Anytime Anywhere Learning program and Toshiba's Notebooks for Schools have sold laptops to 100,000 schools, said Tom Healey, an education manager with Toshiba America Information System Inc. in Irvine, Calif.
Two-thirds of those schools are public.
Healey said public and private schools finance bulk laptop purchases using bank loans, municipal bonds, creative lease programs and donations from wealthy patrons.
Integrating the laptop into the curriculum is the greatest challenge, he said.
For laptop learning to enrich students, teachers must receive training, not only in how to use the machines, but also in how to involve and challenge children using laptop technology.
"Teachers who use computers in the most interesting ways have the right priorities in terms of kids learning," said Henry J. Becker, a professor at the University of California, Irvine and co-director of a national study regarding use of computers in the classroom.
Becker said the machines should never be used to cram more information into a child's head.
"The theory of 'just teach it to them and they will learn' is wrong for most people," he said. "More contemporary cognitive psychology shows us that people won't learn unless they do something with what they've learned."
Eager to take full advantage of laptops, private school administrators started with computer education for teachers months, sometimes years, before the students got their machines.
At Garrison Forest, a boarding school for girls in Owings Mills, teachers spent a week in an intensive training session, said American history teacher Steve McManus. Throughout the 1998-1999 school year, the first year the school provided laptops for fourth-, fifth- and sixth-graders, teachers attended laptop workshops, he said.
Well into his second year of laptop teaching, McManus wonders how he managed before. He updates quizzes with ease and keeps files for every history unit. He's fascinated by the way laptop learning leads to student curiosity.
"It's not just years and dates and facts to them anymore," McManus said. "It's what those facts mean and how to do independent research."
All upper school teachers at Baltimore's Gilman School have been given laptops, said William Samuel Mathews, director of upper school instructional technology, in anticipation that they soon will be required for students.
"Everyone agrees that this thing is taking us by storm," Mathews said, referring to the growing use of laptops in the classroom. "Now we've got to figure out how to make that technology work for us."
At Calvert School, nearly everyone involved is impressed with the results.
"She loves it," Calvert parent Diana Daly, 43, said of her daughter Sophie. "It has made her much more confident with her compositions because she can make grammar and verb tense corrections so easily."
Students are not allowed to download games onto their laptops. Still, the computers can be a distraction. During classroom instruction, teachers sometimes make the children place their hands on their heads to keep them from fiddling with Microsoft Office applications.
"I think it's cool," said Carrie Young, 11, of Roland Park. "With my laptop, everything at school is easier and more fun."
Asked whether she thinks the machine has made her smarter, Carrie said, "Probably, but I'm not sure."