Walton High School rankles parents with classroom work tied to iPads

Fulton County’s digital-device plan

Fulton County school leaders plan to hand out close to 60,000 mobile devices such as tablets or small laptops for students to take home.

The district, which wants to equip all middle and high school students with the technology by 2017, handed out the first devices for the start of this school year to 460 eighth-graders at Autrey Mill Middle School.

For students in kindergarten through fifth grade, more devices will be put in classrooms. Fulton leaders have said they would like all elementary students to have access to the devices eventually, and be able to bring them home.

When Fulton school officials announced the technology rollout last year – considered the most expansive effort yet by a Georgia school district to make technology available to students — the projected cost was nearly $28.3 million. That money is expected to come from SPLOST funds.

A Cobb County high school’s new reliance on iPads for classroom work has some worrying that students without them could be left behind.

Walton High School is directing parents of its nearly 2,600 students to buy iPads for their children to use in classroom assignments starting this month. School officials have said iPads would be available for check-out for students who couldn't afford or didn't own them, but only about a dozen are being provided for those students to use, parents say.

That’s not enough, say some parents who fear students without their own iPad will not be able to keep up. Cobb officials have said students who check the iPads out from Walton’s media center can only use them at school, not bring them home.

“I can’t imagine how the kids are not going to be left behind if they don’t have one,” said Micheal Hane, one of a group of parents who finds the new policy problematic. “I think there’s plenty (of students) that don’t have iPads for sure.”

Parents say there are only 10 iPads available at the media center. The Jan. 12 newsletter of the Walton High School Foundation lists one of the support group's goals as increasing "the iPads available for student checkout from 10 to 50." Cobb school officials declined to say how many students don't have iPads at Walton.

State law says all children in Georgia are entitled to a "free appropriate public education," and forbids schools to "require any pupil or parent to purchase any instructional materials and content; computer hardware, software and technical equipment necessary to support such materials and content."

Though Cobb school officials say the student iPads are not a requirement, many assignments and activities are directly tied to their use. Science teachers plan to use them for electronic labs, for example, while other teachers direct students to use them for note-taking and sharing their work with other students. Teachers are also selecting apps for students to use that only work on Apple devices, parents say.

It’s a first-of-its kind initiative for the state’s second-largest school system, and Walton would be the only high school in Cobb expecting all students to have the devices at school. One of the top-rated schools in Georgia, Walton consistently scores high marks on standardized tests and other academic measures.

A growing number of school systems across the U.S. are implementing so-called 1-to-1 technology initiatives (one device per student). Fulton County schools is providing devices to its students. Instead of expecting families to buy them though, it is using SPLOST (special-purpose local option sales tax) funds.

Cobb uses SPLOST money for instructional computing devices such as laptops and desktops but not iPads, school officials say. A Cobb County plan in 2005 to give students take-home laptops fell through after it spurred a lawsuit over paying for them with SPLOST funds and the superintendent resigned.

Scott Himelstein, director of the University of San Diego’s Mobile Technology Learning Center, who’s done extensive research into 1-to-1 technology initiatives at schools throughout the U.S., says Walton’s policy “raises significant concerns from an equity point of view.

“Most state constitutions provide for an equal access to a quality education, so if we’re saying we’re delivering … educational material through mobile devices, that would imply to me that every kid should have equal access to that content.”

“Even where you find school districts where you have a BYOD policy (bring your own device), for those students who do not have access to a device, almost in all cases I’ve seen … districts provide a device because we don’t want to put any kid at a disadvantage.”

Schools in other states that have 1-to-1 initiatives sometimes charge students a small annual lease fee to use a device if they can’t afford one, he said.

Most schools in Cobb — and other school districts in the metro Atlanta area — don’t expect students to have their own technology devices. Most schools provide laptops, tablets and other devices for students to share in the classroom. Some schools in Cobb allow students to bring their own devices from home to use.

Each school in Cobb evaluates how technology will be used to support teaching, officials say. Some Cobb schools have a small-scale iPad initiative for specific grade levels or groups. Those devices (iPads) were purchased with local or federal funds, not SPLOST funds.

At Walton, there were two meetings in October to inform parents of the iPad initiative, school officials say. The school also says it surveyed parents before implementing the new policy, though some parents said they were not aware of the survey or disagreed with the new iPad policy.