Eye on Education

For these Fresno students, school is reading, writing and tablets (video)

Electronic tablets in bright orange cases were everywhere the first day of school Wednesday at Central Unified School District.

The district in northwest Fresno is one of the first in the state to put tablets in the hands of each student -- from kindergartners to high school seniors -- to use in classrooms and at home.

"I do think you're leading the nation," said State Superintendent of Schools Tom Torlakson, who was at Harvest Elementary School to help commemorate Central's tablet launch.

The focus now must be on replicating Central's success across the state and nation, he said. The "No Child Left Off Line" goal is to have tablets in the hands of California's 7 million students five years from now, he said. "I made that target and I believe we can do it -- we must do it."

It took Central five years, several partnerships and more than $20 million to complete its tablet program, which provides a 4G signal to every tablet and a tablet to each of the district's 15,500 students, Superintendent Michael Berg said.

The Asus Android tablets cost the district $2.5 million, he said. It cost $5 million for the fiber optics and Wi-Fi access to every classroom. District funds paid for the tablets and federal funds paid for the wiring and other digital access costs, he said. The district also has spent about $15 million for professional development in past five years.

The speed at which schools can connect to the Internet is taking on greater importance as schools in California are shifting to computer testing rather than pen-and-paper tests.

But more important, the investment to take the district from pen to pixel allows all children in the district to have equal access to learning, Berg said. A survey of families taken a couple of years ago showed 35% had no Internet access in the home, he said. With the 4G wireless plan from AT&T for the tablets, every home has access, he said.

Harvest Principal Robert Perez said only half of the families at his 632-student school had computers at home. Parent and child can use the computers for learning, he said. "I think that's an important component."

Starting next week, Harvest will offer tablet classes after school in English and Spanish for students and parents, Perez said.

This year, students will use the computers in classrooms for math and reading, Berg said. The math program, ST Math, was created for the district by MIND Research Institute, an independent nonprofit.

"It will take time to replicate all textbooks," Berg said, but in the meantime, teachers are encouraged to take information from textbooks and plug it into a technical platform.

On Wednesday, Berg said third-graders were focused on a BrainRush educational game created by Nolan Buschnell, founder of Atari, Inc. and Chuck E. Cheese's Pizza Time Theaters.

Buschnell, who also was at the school Wednesday, said Central can be a template for tablet programs that could spread like a computer virus. "Let's infect the nation," he said.

Rep. Jim Costa, D-Fresno, who also was at Central's tablet launch, said that providing children access to information inside and outside the classroom is invaluable: "We will note in years to come this is a milestone."

MORE ONLINE: Read more about technology in Valley classrooms, go to www.fresnobee.com/edtech.

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