Eye on Education

Parlier High students rave over iPad tablets

Parlier High took a step toward a textbook-free future last year by issuing iPad Air tablets to students.

They use them in class to collaborate on projects with fellow students, and take them home to write papers and access the Internet.

Every student also gets a mobile hotspot to connect to the Internet via the Verizon cellular phone network while away from school.

"I finally have Internet access -- I'm so happy," senior Savannah Castillo, 18, said last month before graduation.

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Parlier Unified School District is among the first in the region to issue take-home computers to all students.

Four years ago, Corcoran Unified gave iPads to students, and since then officials say they have seen increases in academic performance and graduation rates and a drop in suspensions.

Meanwhile, Madera Unified is experimenting with carts of iPad tablet computers for on-campus use at a middle school. And this fall, each of Central Unified's 15,500 students will get an Asus tablet.

Parlier Principal Edward Lucero said he expects the devices to replace textbooks within a few years.

The district budgeted $2 million to lease about 900 iPad Air computers for three years at $600 each, and related costs. The Wi-Fi is $35 monthly and has a filter to block inappropriate content.

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Each student pays a one-time $43 fee for insurance in case the computer is stolen or damaged. So far, none have been lost or irreparably damaged. If a student can't afford the fee, a private sponsor will make a donation, Lucero said.

"It's a fear, but the kids take care of them," said school district technology director Chris Martinez.

Because the iPad Air comes with a built-in camera, it's easier for students to craft video projects such as public service announcements, Parlier High teacher Wayne Esau said.

"It's awesome," Esau said. "This is the new century. This is the way it's going. The kids show me new stuff on a daily basis."

Students express love for their iPad Airs -- dubbed the "iPanther" after the school mascot.

"There's no more paper, you can just type out notes," said Ivan Jimenez, 17, who graduated this month.

Meriah Schilling, 18, said she felt disbelief when the iPad Airs were handed out.

"Just to get them -- it was a milestone for us," she said.

She used hers to fill out her application for college financial aid, write papers and read iBooks. Teachers can leave comments on her online papers in Google Drive, she said.

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Julian Herrera, 18, another recent graduate, said that when illness forced him to miss school, "I connected to my teacher and sent my work and my essays."

For the upcoming school year, Parlier middle schoolers will each be issued a take-home computer. Seventh-graders are getting Chrome Books and eighth-graders will have iPad Airs.

Digital devices are old hat in Corcoran Unified, which four years ago launched its "one-to-one" iPad program for sixth-graders. The students were able to take them home along with a school-issued Wi-Fi device.

Today, every Corcoran student in fifth through eighth grade is issued an iPad, while high schoolers are issued a MacBook Air laptop computer.

The devices have contributed to improved academic performance, Superintendent Rich Merlo said.

The number of students qualifying on writing tests as college-ready has doubled, and the graduation rate increased from 77% to an average of 92% over the last four years, he said.

"We've been happy with what we see," Merlo said.

Suspensions decreased 60% and absences are down 15% since the program started, he said.

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But tablets and laptop computers alone aren't responsible for improved student achievement, he said.

"It's just a tool," Merlo said.

The key to success is training teachers to incorporate the computers into lesson plans, he said. For that, teacher training is a must, he said.

The devices are getting a workout at home -- there is a spike in Internet access after school lets out, a lull at the dinner hour, followed by an uptick, Merlo said.

Some parents complain about too much time on video games or social media, but teachers remind them that they can restrict their child's computer use, Merlo said.

Lost, stolen or damaged computers are rare, with most mishaps involving liquids spilled onto the keypads. Students sometimes stash their computer in backpacks and carelessly fling the pack at home, he said.

In Madera, Desmond Middle School has about 200 iPads for on-campus use, up from 140 two years ago, said Rebecca Malmo, director of instructional technology at Madera Unified.

They are kept on carts and rolled from class to class as needed.

"It's an excellent tool for 21st century learning," she said. "Students are excited about the technology. It's very engaging."

Tablets and other devices improve collaboration, critical thinking and communication by students, she said.

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But the temporary end of standardized testing as educators prepare for Common Core testing made it impossible to gauge whether the computers improved test scores, she said.

Improved academic performance is not the only goal, Malmo said. One skill being taught at Desmond is to be a "good digital citizen." Students learn "to be cognizant about what they put on the Internet," she said.

And students who are English learners like the iPad because they can quickly translate an unknown phrase or word, an improvement from the textbook-only era.

"It's an extremely exciting time to be in education," Malmo said.

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