Goal for Natick schools is laptops for all

System embraces technology-driven learning style

By Megan McKee
Globe Correspondent / April 17, 2011

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Starting this fall, Natick schools will begin rolling out a $2.27 million initiative to ensure that every high schooler and eighth-grader has an Apple MacBook notebook computer and knows how to use it.

The effort comes three years after the district started giving teachers laptops as the first step toward a one-to-one computing environment for high schoolers. Superintendent Peter Sanchioni said he believes it is the only way to adequately accommodate students’ technology-driven learning style and prime them for success in modern world.

“The students who come into our schools are a different generation,’’ said Sanchioni. He said it’s unreasonable to expect youths who spend hours each day interacting with technology to learn in school classrooms via the traditional model. Or, as he wrote in a presentation to the School Committee, “We need to change our view of the mind from classic education/deductive reasoning to divergent thinking in a multisensory environment.’’

Natick isn’t the only area school district to develop laptop programs.

Wayland has been piloting one-to-one computing with a few dozen math and science students this year, said Superintendent Gary Burton.

“We’re very, very pleased with what we’re seeing,’’ he said.

Wayland Town Meeting recently approved $500,000 for technology spending, Burton said, and that money will be used to beef up the school system’s infrastructure and equipment as the district moves closer to one-to-one implementation.

But how to cover the cost of providing computers for every student remains a question that Wayland must still work out, he said, which is why he is watching Natick closely.

“If we want children to function adequately in the 21st century, we can’t do that with 20th-century tools,’’ said Burton. “We also have to be terribly, terribly respectful of the taxpayers’ money.’’

For Millis, the answer to the funding problem is using iPads, which cost about half as much as MacBooks.

In February, the district handed out the Apple tablets to all 110 of its eighth-graders for the pilot program, which has been in the works for five years.

According to a Millis school survey of 104 eighth-graders, 60 percent said they were spending more time on their school work thanks to the iPads.

If the pilot goes well, Millis officials say, the plan is to add a grade level each year to the program until it extends through high school. This will allow the current eighth-graders and their successors to continue learning on the same technology as they advance in grades, while allowing the town to gradually build up its inventory of devices.

When Natick’s program starts in the fall, eighth-graders will be the first students to get MacBooks so they can enter high school with a mastery of the devices, while giving the program time to take shape with a smaller number of students and teachers, Sanchioni said.

The eighth-grade pilot program’s cost is estimated at $270,000 and will be funded from the school system’s operating budget, according to finance director Bill Hurley.

Also starting this fall, the district will outfit a portion of the temporary modular classrooms set up during the new Natick High School’s construction with laptops to test the one-to-one computing environment at the high school level. Every teacher and student will spend a 45-day stint in the outfitted classrooms, said Sanchioni.

When the new high school opens in fall 2012, all students will be issued laptops, he said, projected to cost $2 million.

School officials said they’ll use $440,000 of technology reimbursement funds from the Massachusetts School Building Authority, with the remaining $1.56 million coming from the new high school’s contingency account, Hurley said.

The laptops will be given out just like books at the beginning of the school year, and students will need to turn them in when classes are over. Sanchioni said parents will be expected to pay for insurance on the devices, in case the laptops get dropped or ruined by other mishaps.

And just like books, students can take their MacBooks home and share them with relatives so learning extends beyond the students, said Sanchioni.

School Committee chairman David Margil said he and his fellow board members are optimistic about the program’s effects.

“We fully expect to see measurable improvements in student performance. I believe we’ll see those improvements both in basic subject matter comprehension and in test results across the subject areas of writing, math, and the sciences,’’ said Margil. “This initiative will give Natick students a real competitive advantage in the college admissions process, and in the workforce after they graduate.’’

Sanchioni said that he and other school officials have visited one-to-one computing districts from Maine to North Carolina. Maine has had a statewide one-to-one computing environment in its schools for several years, with great results, he said.

“This is a big initiative,’’ said Sanchioni. “I’ve had this vision since I arrived here three years ago.’’

Megan McKee can be reached at