BOISE, Idaho — Students may not have to wait for Idaho to roll out a statewide laptop program before they get their hands on a new computer.
Districts across the state are taking advantage of the $13 million lawmakers set aside in 2011 for technology upgrades in the classroom to purchase devices for students that include iPads, laptops, and desktop computers.
Idaho will eventually phase in laptops for every high school teacher and student while making online courses a requirement to graduate, under a plan that was crafted by public schools chief Tom Luna and signed into law last year.
But the $13 million included in this year's public schools budget is not part of the statewide laptop program. The funding is being sent to schools this year to help pay for things like Internet access, technology hardware and teacher training in preparation for the changes.
Many districts are, however, opting to spend the money on various types of computers for students in kindergarten through eighth grades, with hopes of better preparing them for the classrooms that await them once they enter high school.
A portion of the $13 million, about $4 million, has already been distributed to public schools this year. Districts submitted plans earlier this month to the state Department of Education detailing how they would spend the remaining $9 million.
In Craigmont, a former railroad town of about 500 in northern Idaho, the Highland School District plans to spend $5,500 to equip classrooms in kindergarten through fifth grade with iPads. The district plans to eventually transition students into using laptops once they advance onto middle school so they'll be comfortable with the devices later on in high school, where they'll need to complete at least two courses online to graduate.
The district has about 180 students in kindergarten through 12th grades in one school building, said Superintendent Cindy Orr.
"It's easier for us to do it this way, where everyone in the building gets one versus having to wait until they're in the ninth grade," Orr said.
Further to the north in Priest River, district administrators plan to give students in all grades access to digital cameras so they can incorporate photos into their school work. The district also wants to use iPods in elementary school classrooms to help improve student language, art and math skills while also experimenting with the use computer tablets in teaching children who struggle with learning disabilities.
At the Vallivue School District in southwestern Idaho, administrators plan to finish phasing in interactive smart boards in kindergarten through eighth grades, with projectors to display the materials. The district also hopes to eventually buy iPads for every elementary and middle school.
In southwestern Idaho, the Nampa School District plans to equip every elementary school classroom new desktop computers and projectors in kindergarten through fifth grades while spending its $450,000 share of the remaining technology funding from the state.
Nampa schools have been forced to restrict spending on technology in recent years because of budget cuts, said spokeswoman Allison Westfall.
"This won't meet all of our needs, but it will help," Westfall said.
Idaho will start to introduce the statewide laptop program this fall, with computers for every high school teacher.
The state was expected to start phasing in the computers for students in the fall of 2013, starting with every 9th grade classroom, but a statewide task force created to help implement Luna's changes has recommended a different route.
The group was concern that if the laptops were first given to students in the 9th grade, teachers in classrooms with more than one grade would be unwilling to allow one student to work with a laptop alongside another student who was not issued one of the new computers.
The task force recommended the computers be deployed in 9th through 12th grades, starting with one-third of all high schools.
"If we do one-third of the schools, which I'm confident we will, then you are going to have some teachers who are going to have the device for two years or so before the students get it," Luna said. "But still, it's an opportunity for (teachers) to receive the training."
Public schools were hooked up to the Idaho Education Network, a broadband system, in a similar fashion, one-third at a time, he said.
"To think that we are going to roll out 80,000 to 100,000 devices, in one year, to every high school is just not manageable," Luna said.
Some school administrators remain skeptical about how districts will handle the flood of new technology.
In southeastern Idaho, school superintendents have said they're concerned they don't have enough staffing or funding to carry out the changes, which including training for teachers on how to integrate the technology into the classroom. The state Department of Education counters that a portion of the $13 million in technology funding set aside for the current school year — about $3 million — was dedicated to professional development.
The new education changes as a whole have been a lightning rod over the past year.
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The laws are being carried out in public schools even as critics work to overturn the sweeping measures with a referendum in November.
Along with the technology upgrades, the new education mandates backed by Luna and the governor include provisions to limit teacher collective bargaining to salaries and benefits; dump seniority as a factor in layoffs; and require union negotiations to be held in public.
Idaho is also introducing teacher merit pay and shifting money from school salaries to help pay for the changes.
Jessie L. Bonner can be reached at www.twitter.com/jessiebonner