Starting this month, all of the 15,000 high schoolers in Modesto City Schools will have a laptop loaned to them by the school district for use in the classroom and at home.
By incorporating online tools into the high school learning experience, school officials are hoping for benefits such as better student engagement, access to digital resources and sharper computer skills for the teenagers.
But problems with connectivity and damaged or stolen laptops are inevitable, and some efforts may be needed to keep disadvantaged students from falling behind.
With the start of the new school year this month, the HP 360 laptops, which convert to tablets by flipping back the screen, are being issued to students at Beyer, Downey, Enochs, Gregori, Johansen and Modesto high schools. Students at Elliott Alternative Education Center will use personal laptops in class but won’t take them home.
Parents need to know their children will spend their high school days with the laptop. The kids are responsible for taking care of them. And families will be on the hook to pay for lost or broken devices.
The opportunities and struggles of going digital were tested for three years at Grace Davis High School before the district’s Future Ready initiative was taken to the other high schools.
The Davis pilot program allowed the school to work through problems with the network, hardware, Chromebooks and filtering.
Former Davis Principal Mike Rich, now the district’s director of innovation, said the other high schools will deal with glitches. But Future Ready gives students a chance to build computer and online skills they will need in college and their working lives.
“If you look at any individual’s life today, there is computer use,” Rich said. “This is to help the students prepare for what is next.”
During student orientation Friday at Enochs High School, juniors picked up their laptops and attended a presentation on what’s expected.
Like most teenagers, Jordan Jaramillo can access information on the Web with her phone. “But it’s hard to write an essay on my phone and looking up information is easier with a computer,” she said.
Jonathon Gain said he’s looking forward to reading updated textbooks on his laptop. Teachers will use a Schoology program to put assignments on the student laptops and share information, videos, Web links and activities.
The students will use the device to run applications, read feedback from their teachers and look at their grades. A PowerSchool program for parents shows if their kids turned in assignments on time and lets them see grades on recent tests.
Parents on the hook if laptop damaged, lost
Modesto high schools were not on the first wave of this digital transformation. In fact, a few school districts across the country that got in early are tossing out their student laptops due to costly problems.
One of the first issues at Davis was damage to the devices. Screens were cracked when a student would trip on a cord, knocking a device off the table, and some students neglected to take good care of their laptops.
Rich said laptop cases were provided to reduce the damage, and the staff worked on behavior modification, advising students to stop tossing backpacks with laptops inside into lockers.
Teachers and students were frustrated by a lack of bandwidth, which caused interruptions and frozen screens. “If I recall correctly, the system issues were addressed by the second semester,” said Lindsey Bird, who teaches English language development in the Language Institute at Davis.
Last year, Davis teachers started using a LanSchool program allowing them to monitor screens of students who are inattentive in class and to make sure students are not viewing inappropriate content.
Some families short on finances struggled to pay the replacement cost for lost, stolen or broken Chromebooks. (The school has since gone to a different brand of laptop.) Rich said students in those financial circumstances were allowed to work on campus to eliminate the debt.
He estimated that 15 percent of student laptops were broken or damaged and a handful were lost or stolen.
The Davis program found that 30 percent of families were disadvantaged by lack of Internet service at home. In an attempt to address that, the school sent fliers to parents on the federal rules that require Comcast and other providers to offer high-speed Internet to eligible households for $10 a month.
Rich said kids could stay on campus and use the school’s Wi-Fi until 5:30 p.m. Studying at Starbucks or other businesses was an option as well for those without home service.
Bird said she was initially on the fence about going digital but later embraced the program. “It is always a tough transition since most teachers were not born in the digital age,” Bird said.
This past week, 20 teenagers from different counties from Latin America to Asia were enrolled at Davis. The laptops are indispensable for teaching them the English language, starting with the alphabet, Bird said.
“When the kids come here, we can’t even guarantee they are literate in their primary language,” she said. “Five of our classes are language acquisition and they are all on digital.”
Parents can buy an annual insurance policy for $20 to avoid those costs. The insurance covers damage to a device once, but not for additional times.
Modesto City Schools is paying $10.3 million over three years for the laptops as Future Ready is launched in the other high schools. Millions more were spent expanding equipment and wiring every classroom.
Additional tech support was hired, so that every school has two technicians for responding to help tickets and six rovers circulate to campuses.
Principal Jason Manning of Modesto High School said students will start with an online English curriculum and other subject matter will be added in time. The school was introducing the system to parents Friday and telling them about a $9.95-a-month deal on home Internet service, depending on income.
Manning had no estimate on how many homes in poorer sections of west Modesto are not connected. The entire Modesto High campus is outfitted with Wi-Fi. And online material can be cached on the laptops for use in homes without Internet service.
Rebecca Harrington, president of the Latino Community Roundtable, said brochures on low-cost Internet service are included in backpacks that the group gives to local schoolchildren every year. “Economically, that can be a challenge for families,” said Harrington, who is fully on board with schools going digital. “We need to make sure our children are up to date and performing at standards they need to meet in college and the workplace.”
Rich said there are no firm plans for going all-digital at elementary and middle schools in Modesto City Schools.
He urged parents of high schoolers to use the online links to establish accounts on PowerSchool and stay involved in their child’s education. While parental participation is prevalent in the lower grades, it tends to drop off when the kids are in high school, Rich said.
Ceres schools are digital
Ceres Unified School District has 14,000 kindergarten-though-12th grade students on Chromebooks and is happy with the system, officials said. The district spent 18 months building the infrastructure for running the Web-based applications at more than 20 schools.
Chris Higle, director of information technology for Ceres Unified, said the number of stolen or lost devices is under 200 a year. More than 80 percent of parents buy the insurance, costing $10 per student or a $40-per-family maximum.
Any stolen devices are disabled by a “bricking” process, which displays a message on the screen, saying: “Please return this device to Ceres Unified School District.”
A few stolen devices have been returned. “We had a scenario where someone said they bought it at the flea market and brought it back in good conscience,” Higle said.
Ceres makes a $1.4 million annual lease payment on the student Chromebooks and is going into the third and final year of a replacement cycle. When the year is completed, the district will need to “refresh” the entire fleet of Chromebooks, Higle said.
“We have talked to quite a few school districts about what we are doing,” Higle said. “We are all learning together.”
Ken Carlson: 209-578-2321, @KenCarlson16