Laptop program controversial, but effective
By Tom Lappas, Citizen Editor 04/29/11
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.
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."
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."
Citizen Staff Reports 03/21/2017 Transportation
Work to repair a leaking water main or valve will require lane closures beginning at 8:30 a.m. Wednesday, March 22 near Gayton Road and John Rolfe Parkway.
Westbound Gayton’s left turning lane and left through lane will be closed. Westbound traffic will be shifted to the right through lane. Eastbound Gayton’s left through lane will be closed at John Rolfe. Eastbound traffic will be shifted to the right through lane. > Read more.
Citizen Staff Reports 03/21/2017 Health
HCA Virginia's Henrico Doctors' Hospitals recently was named one of the nation’s 100 top hospitals by Truven Health Analytics, a provider of information and solutions that support healthcare cost and quality improvement.
Henrico Doctors’ Hospitals consists of three community hospitals – Henrico (Forest), Parham, and Retreat Doctors’ Hospitals – and two freestanding emergency departments, West Creek Emergency Center and Hanover Emergency Center. Henrico Doctors’ Hospitals specializes in heart and stroke care, women’s health, oncology, orthopedics, urology, and behavioral health. > Read more.
Citizen Staff Reports 03/21/2017 Government
Henrico County Public Library is planning community meetings March 28-29 and April 1 to receive input from county residents on the design of a new Fairfield Area Library. Meetings will be held at the Fairfield Area Library, 1001 N. Laburnum Ave., and at the Eastern Henrico Recreation Center, 1440 N. Laburnum Ave.
Architects from BCWH, Inc. will join library staff for the meetings, which will feature discussions and seek ideas on spaces and services for specific age groups as well as designs for the entire facility. > Read more.
Citizen Staff Reports 03/21/2017 Education
Time is running out to enroll in a program to prepay tuition at Virginia public colleges and universities. The current enrollment window for Virginia529's Prepaid529 ends March 31. Nearly 50,000 Virginia students have funded college costs through this program since it began 20 years ago.
Prepaid529 allows families to purchase semesters of tuition and mandatory fees for newborn children through ninth graders. Semester prices vary based on the age of the beneficiary. > Read more.
MAR. 21, 9:30 A.M. – Henrico Police are seeking the man who robbed a Wells Fargo Bank on Brook Road Monday evening.
At approximately 5 p.m. March 20, police responded to the bank, in the 8100 block of Brook Road, after reports that a white male had entered the business and presented a note demanding money. > Read more.
St. Joseph's Villa’s Flagler Housing & Homeless Services was one of three entities to earn the National Alliance to End Homelessness' Champion of Change Award. The awards were presented Nov. 17 during a ceremony at the Newseum in Washington, D.C.
NAEH annually recognizes proven programs and significant achievements in ending child and family homelessness.
Flagler completed its transition from an on-campus shelter to the community-based model of rapid rehousing in 2013, and it was one of the nation's first rapid re-housing service providers to be certified by NAEH. > Read more.
Richmond International Raceway's 13th annual Community Christmas tree lighting has been rescheduled from Dec. 6 to Monday, Dec. 12, at 6:30 p.m., due to inclement weather expected on the original date.
Entertainment Dec. 12 will be provided by the Laburnum Elementary School choir and the Henrico High School Mighty Marching Warriors band. Tree decorations crafted by students from Laburnum Elementary School and L. Douglas Wilder Middle School will be on display. Hot chocolate and cookies will be supplied by the Henrico High School football boosters. > Read more.
For our Top 10 calendar events this weekend, click here! > Read more.
- More News
Mar. 16, 2017Click here to read the print edition.
- More Entertainment
- More Obituaries
- More Community
- More Opinions
- More Sports