A Laptop for Every Kid

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Carmen Arace Middle School is situated in the pastoral town of Bloomfield, Conn., but four years ago it faced many of the same challenges as inner-city schools in nearby Hartford: low scores on standardized tests, dropping enrollment and high rates of detention. Then the school's hard-driving principal, Delores Bolton, persuaded her board to shake up the place by buying a laptop computer for each student and teacher to use, in school and at home. For good measure, the board provided wireless Internet access at school. Total cost: $2.5 million.

Now, an hour before classes start, every seat in the library is taken by students eager to get online. Fifth-grade teacher Jen Friday talks about sedimentary rocks as students view them at a colorful website. After school, students on buses pull laptops from backpacks to get started on homework. Since the computers arrived, enrollment is up 20%. Disciplinary suspensions are down 80%. Scores on state achievement tests are up 35%. Bolton, who is black, is proud to run "a school with 90% black enrollment that is on the cutting edge."

Indeed, school systems in rural Maine and New York City are eager to follow Arace Middle School's example. Governor Angus King has proposed using $50 million from an unexpected budget surplus to buy a laptop for all of Maine's 17,000 seventh-graders--and for new seventh-graders each fall. The funds would create a permanent endowment whose interest would help buy the computers. The plan, scaled back to $30 million in a compromise with the legislature, is scheduled to be voted on this week.

In the same spirit, the New York City board of education voted unanimously on April 12 to create a school Internet portal, which would make money by selling ads and licensing e-commerce sites. The portal will also provide e-mail service for the city's 1.1 million public school students. Profits will be used to buy laptops for each of the school system's 87,000 fourth-graders. Within nine years, all students in grades 4 and higher will have their own computers.

Back in Bloomfield, the school board is seeking federal grant money to expand its laptop program to high school students. In the meantime, most of the kinks have been worked out. Some students were using their computers to goof off or visit unauthorized websites. But teachers have the ability to track where students have been on the Web and to restrict them. "That is the worst when they disable you," says eighth-grade honors student Jamie Bassell. "You go through laptop withdrawal." The habit is rubbing off on parents. "I taught my mom to use e-mail," says another eighth-grader, Katherine Hypolite. "And now she's taking computer classes. I'm so proud of her!"