WESTERLY — To ensure that students are not hampered by differences in socioeconomic status, they should be issued laptop computers upon entering high school, officials say.
Michael Hobin, Westerly High School principal, encouraged the School Committee during a March 27 meeting to consider discussing a potential "one-to-one" laptop distribution, and to possibly involve residents in the discussion. Computers "are a critical piece of what is happening in 21rst century learning. It is my humble opinion that Westerly's gap is increasing as a result of not having an initiative like this," said Hobin, who has been principal since late July.
Hobin said he was surprised upon arriving in the district to learn that the school did not already have a one-to-one initiative in place. With about one in five students in the school qualifying for low or reduced-price lunch, Hobin said household income is limiting some students.
"When you see how that translates into other aspects of their life, they can't afford a computer. They certainly can't afford a laptop to bring to school every day," Hobin said.
Superintendent of Schools Mark Garceau noted that the district's Accelerated Improvement Plan calls for "ensuring that all kids have access to high quality instruction and the materials they need."
The school's Wi-Fi capacity would have to be upgraded before a one-to-one initiative could be fully integrated by teachers, Garceau said. A capital request for funding the proposed upgrade and related wiring work is part of the district's 2019-20 budget request. The Town Council will start its review of the budget tonight.
School officials are hopeful that a one-to-one initiative could start with next school year's freshman class. The move would coincide with a donation of $35,000 to the high school by Cynthia and Tom Sculco. The Sculcos, who both graduated from the high school, asked that the money be used to buy laptops for students from low-income families.
Hobin said the hope is to distribute the laptops purchased with the Sculcos' donation, and for the district to be in position to distribute laptops to the rest of the freshman class as well. Backup laptops to be used if others are broken would also be purchased.
Eventually, Hobin said, he would like a one-to-one initiative extended to all four high school grades. He noted that all students at Westerly Middle School have access to laptops during the school day but when they get to the high school they share. Students at the high school, unlike those at the middle school, would be allowed to take their district-issued laptops home.
In place of laptops, many students currently rely on their cellphones. If students all have laptops, Hobin said, it would be easier to limit students' use of cellphones while in school.
The high school currently uses Chromebook laptops that are reserved by teachers for specific times. Because the devices are limited in number and availability, Hobin said, teachers sometimes refrain from incorporating technology into their lesson plans.
Chromebooks would be used for the initiative. The devices have to be replaced about every three to four years, Hobin said. While district spending on textbooks might go down as a result of becoming more reliant on computers, Hobin cautioned that e-books are often more expensive than paper books.
School Committee member Christine Piezzo, who has been a teacher for more than 20 years, called on Hobin and the school's staff to develop a 10-year plan outlining how many laptops would be needed and their cost. "We need to see the numbers, we can't earmark money if we don't know how much it is," she said.
Professional development for teachers on how to use technology to enhance teaching and learning and to improve student performance will be critical, Piezzo said. "That's where school districts fail, if they have not done the professional learning," she said.
Hobin also reviewed steps that the high school has taken to ensure that teachers are able to incorporate technology into their work.
Each teacher received a Chromebook at the beginning of the school year for lesson planning and communicating with families. Most teachers chose technology as their annual professional growth goal for the year, Hobin said. Early release day professional time has been dedicated to implementing technology into classrooms, and in March, teachers of English, science, math, social studies, and special education teachers attended four sessions at the Highlander Institute in Providence, where they developed subject-specific projects to implement technology into lesson plans.
All students, Hobin said, would benefit from a one-to-one initiative regardless of what they plan to do after high school.
"When those students become employees somewhere, I'm willing to bet that whatever profession they are in they are going to use some type of computer for some type of thing," he said.