Watauga considering iPads for K-8 students
by Kellen Moore
Watauga County Schools is contemplating an expansion of its technology initiative that would put iPads or other digital devices into the hands of K-8 students.
Although there are no firm plans at this point, Superintendent David Kafitz and his staff are moving aggressively to lay the groundwork for such a possibility in the near future.
“Because digital content is becoming more pervasive and because our kids need these 21st-century skills, we have to go this route,” Kafitz said.
To get the discussions started, the school system is hosting an informational session Sept. 19 at Watauga High School for the Board of Education, county commissioners, state representatives, chamber of commerce leaders and candidates for local offices.
Representatives from Apple, which makes the iPad and other technologies, will address the group at that session. Two sessions earlier in the day will provide similar information geared toward teachers and administrators.
Meanwhile, school staff members are assessing the networks, Internet connections and other features of the eight elementary schools to see what kind of upgrades, filters and other systems might be needed.
Kafitz said they also expect to start pre-planning for staff development sessions to scope out teachers’ needs before any concrete steps occur.
The school system is looking into the iPad, the MacBook Air laptop or other options, Kafitz said, although other vendors than Apple may be considered.
Watauga County Schools may look to roll out new technology in middle school first, he said.
The tentative plan builds on that of Watauga High School, which unveiled its laptop program in fall 2010, providing each student and teacher with a laptop computer for use at school and home.
Kafitz said schools that are moving toward a technology-rich environment are seeing more motivated students and higher levels of engagement, he said. While technology is not a silver bullet to improve test scores, it can create the kind of learning environment that leads to that outcome, he said.
Discussions also have taken place at the state level about conducting standardized tests online in the coming years.
Kafitz has led such a technology initiative at least once before. During his two and a half years as director of technology for Union County Public Schools, he supervised the implementation of the largest middle school laptop initiative in the state.
“What I learned working in Union County is that you need to start a year out at least, thinking about it, planning, to put all the pieces in place,” he said.
The biggest hurdle will likely be the expense. Kafitz said the meeting this month is an important step to ensure that when it does come to requesting financial help, the stakeholders better understand the purpose and have had ample opportunities for questions.
In Avery County Schools, a similar technology initiative was funded jointly by the school system and county commissioners, Superintendent David Burleson said.
Through a lease-to-own agreement, the school system will spend about $2.5 million on 1,400 MacBook Air laptops — used by middle school and high school students — and about 700 iPads for K-5 students, he said.
After the four-year lease term is complete, the school system can decide whether to purchase the devices for $1, or it can sell them back to Apple to use as a down payment for another four-year lease of new items.
Avery County Schools rolled out those technologies to students last winter and has seen tremendous potential in transforming the “toy to a tool,” Burleson said.
Students are accessing and submitted homework assignments by email, keeping up with grades online, creating presentations, videos and more, he said. Each student also has his own email address.
Burleson said he has been particularly impressed to watch kindergarten and first-grade students use the technology — and to see veteran teachers embrace it as well.
“We’re excited about the progress we’ve made,” he said.
If the plan unfolds as desired, Watauga County Schools will soon be able to say the same thing.
Kafitz said he’s excited about the potential and hopes to start by raising awareness in the community of what the school system hopes to accomplish.
“I need to do my work up front of educating them about the potential,” Kafitz said. “We need to start that conversation now.”