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Funding derails laptop program

Andover schools find other expenses prevail

ANDOVER -- A lack of funds is forcing school officials here to scrap a program to outfit all fifth-graders with laptop computers, an effort that drew national attention when it was launched three years ago.

School officials say they need $1 million to expand the experimental program from 79 to 460 students, but must use the money to meet other critical classroom needs.

"We are hoping to get back to this program eventually, but for this next year we just could not find the funds within or outside the school budget," said Andover Superintendent Claudia Bach. "We said from the outset this was a pilot, and unfortunately, in June the pilot will come to an end."

Andover parents have been underwriting the $2,000-per-pupil cost of the Toshiba Satellite M20s given each year to a selected group of fifth-graders, 79 of them this year, with a combination of scholarship and low-interest loans. School officials do not think parent contributions can expand the program to all fifth-graders in the near future. They had hoped to get grants to provide laptops in every elementary school, but have failed to secure any.

"When we saw what it would cost to expand the program, we got very concerned about the equity issue -- which kids had them and which didn't," said Anthony James, chairman of the Andover School Committee. "Unless we could fund across the system, we felt that we had to follow the recommendation of the superintendent and postpone it until we could afford that."

Students become the owners of the laptops upon receiving them, so they will still be able to use them at home, but officials said the schools can no longer afford to train teachers on using the laptops in the classroom, or provide technical support.

"We always advertised it as a pilot program paid for by parents exclusively," James said.

Since its inception in fall 2001, parents and teachers have supported the program's attempt to integrate cutting-edge technology in the classroom and see how it affected children's learning. Students use the laptops for regular writing, note-taking, and research and take the computers home to do homework.

A Boston College review of the project earlier this year was inconclusive on the impact of the laptops on learning, further hampering efforts to secure a grant to continue the program, according to school officials. The 17-page report, released earlier this year, noted that reviewers could not make any conclusions on the effect technology had on classroom learning because the college did not get to evaluate students before they began using the computers.

The report, however, did compare the academic gains of students with their own laptops versus those who had to share computers. The students with laptops showed a slightly higher level of engagement in classroom tasks, the study indicated.

Despite the lack of statistical proof, James said he was impressed with the study's anecdotal evidence indicating that students "were more organized and were better writers" because of their exposure to a laptop-based program.

One teacher told Boston College reviewers that "the ways in which [my students] use technology are much more in depth; for instance, the Internet is a much larger presence for science, social studies, and math. The instant gratification of available information has given the term `research' a whole new meaning for my students."

While Andover is reining in its laptop program, Maine's Department of Education is hoping to expand its three-year-old effort into high schools next year. Maine now pays for laptops for the state's 34,000 seventh- and eighth-graders.

Bette Manchester, policy director for Maine's technology initiative, said three research studies commissioned by the state indicate that students are better organized and better engaged because the computer provides a disciplined framework for learning.

James noted that the cost per student is a major difference between Maine and Andover's programs. Maine has been able to afford laptops in part because it negotiated a favorable lease with Apple Computers, which puts the cost at $300 per person per year, said Tony Sprague, project manager for the state's Learning Technology Initiative. Students are given the laptops but don't own them. Maine also has given laptops to 3,000 teachers, Sprague said.

James said he was hopeful Andover officials and parents eventually could find ways to lower the cost of the laptop program and find private funding to pay for it. "Of course, Apple has taken on the whole state of Maine," he said. "We are just one town."

Sandy Durland, whose daughter Abby is an Andover fifth-grader with a laptop, fears the program will not be revived in time for his third-grade son, Carter, to participate. Durland also worries that his daughter, who has flourished in using the technology, will lose some of what she has learned.

"Abby was never very interested in computers until we enrolled her in this class, and now, nine months later, she has become quite proficient and is really pretty computer literate," Durland said."My big concern for her now is that she will lose some of the skills she has developed this year as she moves up into the middle school next year, because the school system really doesn't have any follow-up for these kids in place at the next level."

Caroline Louise Cole can be reached at cole@globe.com.

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