By Paul Leighton

The eyes of Massachusetts educators will be on communities like Burlington and Beverly this year as high school students return to school sporting not just backpacks but laptops and iPads. The two public school districts are at the forefront of what officials say will become a growing trend of equipping every student with a mobile computer.

Burlington High School is providing each of its 1,000 students with an Apple iPad, while Beverly High is offering MacBook laptops to its 1,200-strong student body. The two schools north of Boston are joining a handful of other Massachusetts public schools in the so-called “1-to-1” movement (one computer for each student), and Burlington High Principal Patrick Larkin is convinced that many more will soon follow.

Massachusetts is behind some other states, like Iowa, where nearly 100 school districts provide laptops or other devices to every student. But Larkin expects this to change over the next three to five years. “My prediction is that Massachusetts will mirror Iowa. It’s going to take off in this state as well,” he says.

Proponents of “1-to-1” say the time is now to prepare high school students for a world steeped in technology, one in which laptops and other mobile devices proliferate in the college and working environments that await them. High schools like Beverly’s have provided students with the occasional laptop; the computers, were lugged around on a rolling cart to classroom teachers who requested them. Now school officials are putting those laptops in students’ hands 24 hours per day, 365 days per year.

The Beverly High program works this way: Students can rent a MacBook for $28 per month ($336 per year, or $1,344 over four years). When they graduate, they can buy their laptop for $1. At orientation sessions to hand out the laptops two weeks before the start of school, nearly 1,000 of the school’s 1,200 students showed up.

“We’re really excited,” says Principal Sean Gallagher. “That’s a great amount of students involved already, and once the program is up and running we’re sure more will become involved.”

Students whose families choose not to participate – the program is not mandatory – will be given “loaner” laptops in the classroom, but will not be allowed to take them home. Laptops will be available for after-school use at the city’s two libraries. Beverly’s Technology Director Judy Miller says students can also download information from their school laptops to a removable flash drive and plug the data into their home computer.

Kenny Pierce, who has a son and daughter at Beverly High, says the cost of renting a laptop will be a burden for some families, who are already inundated by user fees for sports, music programs, parking and other extras. But he agrees that computers need to become a part of students’ everyday learning experience. “I think it’s terrific,” he says. “This is what’s going on with this generation. It’s all wireless.”

Financial assistance is available for eligible families. Miller says the cost of the laptops includes insurance for theft and accident damage, as well as Apple updates. If a laptop breaks down, the student can bring it to a “tech support center” in the school for repairs.

Teachers have also been trained on how to use the MacBooks and will use them at their discretion.

To illustrate the impact that laptops could have in the classroom, Miller gives an example of how a teacher might approach the subject of the Cuban missile crisis of 1962. She reads a line in a textbook about a telephone call between President John Kennedy and former President Dwight Eisenhower during the crisis. Using a MacBook, she then clicks a button and plays a 30-second tape of the conversation.

The options, Miller says, are endless. Last year, a Russian teacher taught a vocabulary lesson by having her students produce a 30-second commercial in Russian on their laptops.

“It gives students another way to demonstrate what they know,” Miller says. “It will never stop the writing of research papers. But it provides alternatives like making a documentary, interviewing people. The whole idea is that the technology is there when the teacher needs it, when it best supports instruction. It can be spontaneous. Anytime, anywhere it makes sense. There are so many resources online now it’s unbelievable for teachers.”

Potentially distracting Web sites such as Facebook will be blocked, Miller says. And if a teacher is worried that the laptops are diverting students’ attention, he or she can simply tell students to close the covers.

Beverly’s laptop program coincides with a recent $81 million expansion of its high school, which included the implementation of wireless technology that will enable the use of laptops.

iPads Replace Textbooks

In Burlington, school officials decided to go with less expensive iPads instead of laptops, and to provide them free of charge. The only potential cost for families is an optional insurance policy for $39 per year. The school district is paying just under $200,000 per year for three years to buy the iPads.

Larkin, the principal, says Burlington, with its strong commercial tax base (think Burlington Mall) and general fiscal soundness, is in a unique position to be able to afford the devices without passing the cost on to families. Plus, he’s convinced the district will actually save money in the long run on textbooks and paper. He says the district has made a commitment to forgo buying any new textbooks, which cost $75 to $100 apiece, because the information is all online. “Our teachers can create better resources for our kids than the textbook companies ever can,” he says.

Burlington will even save money on substitute teachers, Larkin says. Equipped with iPads, students will be able to access assignments even when their teacher is absent. With that kind of independence, Larkin says one substitute teacher could monitor three classes at a time.

Larkin, who attended a “1-to-1” workshop in Iowa last year, hosted teachers from around the state at his school recently to spread the word about Burlington’s program. A handful of other schools, including two regional high schools in western Massachusetts, Gateway and Hampshire, have already instituted programs.

When Burlington students got their iPads, Larkin says, you could see their faces “light up.” In Beverly, 16-year-old junior Owen Goetemann could hardly contain his smile as he walked out of the cafeteria carrying his laptop in its black carrying case on pickup day.

Asked how often he’ll use his MacBook, Goetemann says, “Every day, every class, I think. I hope.”

Paul Leighton is a journalist and father in Beverly.