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."
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