Henrico County VA
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Laptop program controversial, but effective

It is possible to argue, with only a limited degree of panache, that no event in the first 390 years of Henrico County's existence brought it such widespread attention as one that occurred only 10 days shy of 10 years ago.

Within the boundaries of Central Virginia, locals may associate the county's image with Pocahontas, the Citie of Henricus, its Civil War battles or its modern-day fiscal responsibility.

But if the rest of the world is familiar with Henrico, it's likely the result of something else entirely: iBooks.

When Henrico County Public Schools officials announced May 1, 2001 that they would lease 23,000 of the laptop computers from Apple and supply one to every high school and middle school student and teacher in the district, the echoes were heard throughout the nation and even around the globe. Henrico had implanted its mark on the face of education and technology as the first school system to begin such a "one-to-one" computer-to-student laptop initiative. The act ranks 17th on the Henrico Citizen's list of the most significant moments in Henrico history.

Mixed emotions
Controversial. Brilliant. Wasteful. Exciting. Dangerous.

Reactions to the agreement were passionate and mixed from the moment it was announced. Apple CEO Steve Jobs termed the four-year, $18.6-million deal "mammoth" – because it was. The purchase represented the largest single sale of laptop computers in education. It also signaled the beginning of a new era of technology and its practical applications in the classroom – and placed Henrico on the crest of that fast-approaching wave.

From a national and international perspective, educators viewed the announcement through mostly rosy glasses, some tinted with a hint of envy. Other districts had considered similar initiatives, but none had taken the plunge.

But within Henrico, the announcement faced far more skepticism.

“I think generally we got high accolades just about everywhere except here at home,” said Stuart Myers, who was intimately involved in the agreement as the Tuckahoe District representative on the School Board at the time.

The decision came as a surprise to citizens of the county. The School Board had not sought public opinion about the possibility of beginning such an initiative. It hadn't established a pilot laptop program to determine how to best implement such an effort in all of its high schools. It hadn't provided teachers with the training they would need to integrate the laptops into their courses effectively.

Each idea, opponents later argued, would have been appropriate at worst – and at best would have resulted in considerable savings of time, energy and headache.

It was then-Henrico Superintendent Mark Edwards who brought the idea to the School Board, Myers said, after conversations with Apple and an unsolicited offer by the computer giant.

“He said, ‘What would you think if we could make this happen?’” Myers recalled. Money existed within the School Board's budget to pay for the computers, and School Board members reacted positively to the suggestion.

Edwards knew the process would not be entirely smooth, but he wanted to push forward with a full launch of the program that fall anyway.

"He always said, 'The pioneers take the first arrows,'" Myers recalled.

Challenges and successes
Predictably, the first year of the initiative came with its share of problems.

Enterprising students figured out ways to circumvent internet blocks to access pornography and other inappropriate content. A few figured out how to hack into school system sites. Students whose laptops needed repairs sometimes had to wait weeks for the machines to be fixed.

Vocal groups of citizens who opposed the program worried that the laptops were meant to replace textbooks entirely. Some demanded direct evidence that laptops would improve test scores and classroom learning, in order to justify the expense of their purchase. Others feared that teachers would feel obligated to use the laptops for classroom lessons that didn't necessarily require them.

But, Myers said, the goal of the initiative was simple.

"It was just a quantum leap forward in providing information access," he said. "It allowed us to provide a lot of things at the students' fingertips. But this was not all new information – it was just a different way of providing it."

Proponents argued that the initiative provided access to technology to all students – evening the playing field for those who may not have had a family or personal computer previously. It also allowed students to learn more creatively, they said, through lessons that could come to life every day.

It didn't take long for curious officials from school districts near and far to come calling.

"We had representatives from school systems all over the country come in and see what we did, how we did it," Myers said, admitting that the amount of national and international attention Henrico received was surprising. "We knew we were going to get a certain amount of press, but we didn't do it for that reason."

Before long, Henrico was not the only school system to initiate such a program. Today, there are hundreds that have done so.

"What's so surprising is how commonplace and ordinary everyone thinks it is now," Myers said. "Ho hum. If a school system goes out and buys 10,000 computers, nobody thinks that's news."

Lasting legacy
In the years since that announcement a decade ago, the initiative has continued. Two new School Boards have evaluated the program, but both opted to keep it. Several years ago, the board funded the most in-depth study ever conducted on the pros and cons of such an initiative, which concluded the computers are an effective tool for students and that they may be more effective in certain disciplines than in others.

Ironically, perhaps, the program continues without Apple. The School Board rebuffed an unsolicited offer by Apple to renew the lease with one year remaining on the original contract, then surprised many observers by dumping Apple for a four-year contract for high school laptops with Dell in 2005. Apple won a second contract for middle school computers the following year but lost out to Dell last year when that contract expired.

The lasting impact of the school system's original decision may be difficult to fully gauge, but Myers believes it firmly stamped Henrico's name on the educational map forever and made the county even more attractive to potential businesses and residents looking to locate in an education-centric place.

"It was just indicative of the fact that Henrico is a leading jurisdiction in many factors," he said, "that we are forward-thinkers, we're willing to look beyond the norm, willing to go out on a limb for something we believe is an improvement.

"We already had a good image. This polished that image a little bit."
Community

Glen Allen student to perform at Carnegie Hall

Thanks to a first-place win in The American Protege International Vocal Competition 2014, Glen Allen High School student Matija Tomas will travel to New York City to perform at Carnegie Hall in December.

At the first-place winners recital in Weill Hall, Matija will perform Giacomo Puccini’s opera aria, “Chi il bel sogna di doretta.” She will perform with other vocalists from around the world and have the opportunity to win other awards and scholarships.

Locally, Thomas has performed with Richmond’s renowned Glorious Christmas Nights, Christian Youth Theatre, and WEAG’s Urban Gospel Youth Choir. > Read more.

Gayton Baptist Church dedicates new outreach center


The John Rolfe YMCA and Gayton Baptist Church have partnered in an effort to bring greater health and wellness opportunities to the community.

Through this partnership, the John Rolfe Y will run Youth Winter Sports programs, including basketball and indoor soccer, in Gayton’s newly renovated $5.5 million outreach center that features a new gymnasium, youth and teen space, social space with café, meeting space and full service commercial kitchen. > Read more.

Henricus Historical Park to host Publick Day Sept. 20

Henricus Historical Park will commemorate its anniversary during Publick Day, a signature annual event that celebrates the establishment of the second successful English settlement in the New World. In September 1611, Sir Thomas Dale, along with soldiers, tradesmen and farmers, ventured from Jamestown to create the Citie of Henricus. Leaders of Henricus developed the first English hospital, chartered the first college in North America, established tobacco as the first cash crop in Virginia, and created a place where Pocahontas lived and met John Rolfe.

Publick Day will take place Saturday, Sept. 20, from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Admission is free and parking is $5 per vehicle. > Read more.

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Entertainment

Extras sought for AMC’s ‘TURN’

Paid extras are being sought to appear in the AMC television series TURN: Washington's Spies, which will begin filming its second season in the Richmond area at the end of September and continue through February.

No experience is required, but producers say that extras must have flexible availability, reliable transportation and a positive attitude.

Arvold Casting is holding an open call on Sunday, Sept. 21 and is seeking men, women and children who are Caucasian, African American and Native American, with thin to average builds and who can realistically portray people living in Revolutionary War times. Long hair is a plus but not a must. > Read more.

Weekend Top 10


TGIF! Celebrate the weekend at Oak Hall Baptist Church’s Community Block Party on Saturday. Learn more about ballroom dancing, art and Colonial times. Or take the kids to Generation Z Games for water play or Southern Season to cook up a Disney-theme meal. For all our top picks this weekend, click here! > Read more.

Weekend Top 10


Check out these three B’s in Henrico this weekend: books, bluegrass and “Born Yesterday.” Other activities to participate in – and feel good about – are the 15th annual James River Regional Cleanup and the 5th annual Richmond Out of the Darkness Community Walk. For all our top picks this weekend, click here! > Read more.

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