2013-06-14 / Front Page

iPads bring crowd to city hall

By Jack Flagler
Staff Writer

Lionel Whitehead, a seventh-grader at Mahoney Middle School, speaks to the South Portland City Council about the ways in which technology has helped him learn. Next week, the council may reconsider a vote to decline a proposal to provide iPads to students from grades seven through 12. (Jack Flagler photo) Lionel Whitehead, a seventh-grader at Mahoney Middle School, speaks to the South Portland City Council about the ways in which technology has helped him learn. Next week, the council may reconsider a vote to decline a proposal to provide iPads to students from grades seven through 12. (Jack Flagler photo) SOUTH PORTLAND – The South Portland City Council may reconsider last week’s decision to deny a proposal that would provide iPads to all middle and high school students in the city’s public schools.

An audience of more than 100 residents, including students, parents and teachers, filled the senior wing of South Portland Community Center at the council’s Monday, June 10 workshop, mostly to express support for providing iPads to all seventh through 12th graders at Memorial Middle School, Mahoney Middle School and South Portland High School.

The city’s board of education approved a proposal from Director of Technology Andrew Wallace to purchase the iPads in May, but the council was split 3-3 in a vote to award the bid at its June 3 meeting, and therefore defeated the proposal.

Wallace’s proposal would provide iPads to seventh- and eighth-grade students at no cost, because they are cheaper than the Hewlett Packard laptops funded by the state. The $785,000 to cover the cost for iPads to students in grades nine to 12 would come from the school’s technology reserve account, while Maine Learning Technology Initiative funds would pay for teachers to receive MacBook Air laptops.

Gov. Paul LePage announced in late April the state would provide HP laptops to all students in grades seven and eight, replacing the Apple laptops the state currently provides as part of the Maine Learning Technology Initiative. However, LePage also said each school department would have an option to choose one of five proposals for different devices, and the state would reimburse the department up to the cost of an HP laptop.

Additionally, school departments would have the option to purchase any device for high school students at their own cost, with the support of some state technology funds.

Councilors said they received dozens of emails and phone calls in the week between the vote and the workshop, and some even said they responded to a few handwritten letters. Councilors Patti Smith, Linda Cohen and Mayor Tom Blake voted to award the original bid, while Councilors Jerry Jalbert, Michael Pock and Melissa Linscott voted against it.

Jalbert said at the workshop he plans to make a motion for reconsideration at the council’s meeting Monday, June 17. Only a councilor who votes against awarding a bid may bring it back to the floor for reconsideration.

An alternate proposal from Apple would provide students with 11-inch MacBook Air laptops rather than iPads at a somewhat heftier price tag. Because the Apple laptops are slightly more expensive than the HP laptops funded by the state, Wallace said there would be an $18,000 expense for the school department at the middle school level.

For high schoolers, Wallace said the Apple laptop proposal would cost the school department about $200,000 more than the iPad proposal.

Students at the workshop explained to the council the way technology, and specifically one-to-one computing, has helped them learn inside and outside the classroom.

Some described working on shared Google Documents to prepare presentations while one student in a group was coming home from a sporting event and another from a music recital. They described entirely digital lesson plans for some classes, and said they have access to information otherwise unavailable to them.

Valley Street resident Attila DeLisle said students who spoke to the council had a challenge to describe the importance of technology because it has become so ingrained in their routines.

“They had to sit here today and think of completely obvious things they do every day, then come up here and describe them. A computer is not a luxury item anymore, it’s a necessity for how we do business,” DeLisle said.

South Portland High School junior Kevin Jackson told the council he worried about the “broader social implications of denying access to technology” and the inequality it would create between students who could afford to have their own technology at home and those who could not.

“I don’t want any better or worse an education than the person next to me,” Jackson said.

Each councilor said they did not have an issue with bringing technology into the schools, but some had questions both about the cost of the proposal and the relative benefits of iPads versus laptops.

Councilor Michael Pock said he heard a lot about technology in the correspondence he received in the week before the workshop, but not much about cost. Pock said his priority is to make sure the city finds the best solution for the best price.

“Elderly people on fixed incomes, they don’t have laptops and some don’t even have TVs. I want to let them know we’re fighting for them and trying to keep that tax amount down,” Pock said.

Councilor Melissa Linscott said many students wrote to her with the message, “The iPad is better than nothing,” but she was still hearing a lot of support to continue with laptops, and she had concerns about the “limited functionality” of the iPads.

But Morgan Turner, a high school sophomore, said when she volunteers in a kindergarten classroom at Brown School she sees those students using iPads, so she has no concerns about students adapting.

“Pretty soon we won’t be adapting to the iPads because upcoming middle-schoolers will already know how to use them,” Turner said.

Councilor Alan Livingston was absent from the original vote because of a graduation ceremony at Cheverus High School, where he teaches math. Livingston cannot bring a reconsideration motion to the floor next week, but he can vote if the council decides to move in that direction.

Livingston said he was leaning toward supporting the school department’s proposal. But after speaking with teachers at Cape Elizabeth High School, where students use iPads, he had some unanswered questions about the durability of the devices and teachers’ ability to monitor.

“I’m close to saying yes. Help me,” Livingston said.

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