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Chariho’s bold move coming to fruition

When we heard about the Chariho School District’s initiative to provide each student — and their teachers — in 7th- through 12th-grade with a laptop, it sounded like a fairly aggressive commitment to public education in the digital age. District leaders made the project, called Chariho 1:1, a priority and last June the School Committee committed to the purchase of the devices for distribution this school year.

For a small, rural regional school district serving towns that struggle with the budget every year, we felt this represented quite a challenge.

But they did it, and as this first school year under the program winds down, the district was recognized by none other than the technology director for the U.S. Department of Education, Richard Culatta.

Culatta was accompanied last Friday by R.I. Education Commissioner Deborah Gist for a visit to Chariho High School to discuss the initiative with district and school leaders and members of the faculty. He commended them for taking on the project and making it happen. The implementation started earlier this spring when all high school teachers were given Apple laptops. All high school students are scheduled to get laptops in August, as will all middle school teachers as the project is phased into reality.

As the program was gaining traction on the concept level, Superintendent Barry Ricci made it clear he and other leaders in the district felt it was time to take a real step toward moving education into the digital age, which already surrounds students 24/7.

“Are we serious about teaching 21st-century skills, or are we pretending to be serious?” Ricci asked rhetorically at the time. “How can we teach these skills if the students don’t have access to technology?”

And he put it in perspective by adding that without laptops on every desk, students and teachers are still tied to the “computer lab,” a term already ancient in the 21st century. It’s a credit to Ricci and his board and administrators that they would no longer settle for such a setup.

“It’s not OK anymore for teachers to have to reserve a computer lab for students three days in advance,” Ricci said last July. “In the long term we’re going to save money, and we’re going to provide a state-of-the-art education, which our kids deserve.” In that regard, Ricci pointed out at the time that this program is being funded within the operating budget through a reallocation of dollars that will continue over the next few years as more and more technology is introduced on campus.

“We spend between $80 to $100 per textbook. Electronic textbooks are around $15 per textbook or even free,” Ricci said.

During Friday’s visit from Culatta, high school Principal Laurie Weber said she envisions the initiative — and an accompanying re-evaluation of the Chariho system — ushering in an environment in which students are motivated to learn. “This movement will change how we do business in every way,” she told us. “My dream is that kids are so engaged and plugged in that they just can’t wait to get here.”

For his part, Culatta noted that with any such project, there are likely to be setbacks along the way. The important thing, he said, is to keep moving forward and learning from any missteps.

“If there isn’t some stressful times ... it means you’re probably not tackling a very difficult problem,” Culatta said. “Stuff will go wrong, not everything will work perfectly. But we can’t let lack of tolerance for things going wrong get in the way of getting it right.”

We couldn’t agree more. Hats off to all involved with bringing this to the fore and seeing it to fruition.

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