Ferndale schools use tech devices to change educational approach

Eleanor Scott no longer has to worry about finding a public computer to do her homework. Now, she can write up her assignments on her tablet and access the internet from wherever she finds a connection.

Ferndale School District gave Scott, now a seventh-grader at Vista Middle School, and every other middle-school student an HP ElitePad with a keyboard to use at home or at school during the school year in October, 2013.

“It definitely makes work easier,” Scott said.

The district plans to give every K-12 student their own computing device within the next few years as part of their one-to-one program. Through the program, the district has become a statewide leader in providing technology to students, and both teachers and district officials say the program has revolutionized the way they approach education.

In addition to the tablets given to middle-school kids, Dell Latitude laptops were given to every ninth-grader at Ferndale High School in November, 2014. All Windward High School students also received laptops this school year, and some iPads have been placed in Ferndale elementary schools.

“What we really want to do is provide great core instruction,” said Scott Brittain, assistant superintendent for teaching and learning for Ferndale School District. “This allows us to do a better job in the classroom, and it really allows our kids better access to things they haven’t had access to before.”

Equalizing education

The district implemented the one-to-one program in large part to eliminate the disparity in resources from student to student, Brittain said.

During the 2012-13 school year, just under 50 percent of students in the district qualified for free or reduced lunch, which Brittain said is a sign that some students don’t have access to computers at home. He said giving each student the same technology eliminates the gap between the haves and have-nots.

“We’re really equalizing education across the board for our kids,” Brittain said.

Teachers at both Vista and Horizon middle schools said giving each student their own tablet has changed the way they teach the curriculum.

Amy Nylen, a teacher at Vista Middle School, has her students use the technology every day in her seventh-grade current events class. As an example, on Thursday, Dec. 19, she had the students researched the pros and cons of social networking using their tablets. They then wrote down their responses and would later have a class discussion about what they found.

She said the devices have allowed students to do more research at home, which creates more time for discussion and critical thinking during class.

One of her students, Destinee Lopez, said even though she had a home computer before, she has found it easier to do research on her tablet. Her classmate Noah Williams agreed, and said his favorite thing about the tablets is that they’ve made his backpack lighter since he doesn’t have to carry around as many textbooks.

Nylen added that her students have a wide range in reading levels, and the technology helps “level the playing field.” She said because the students can so easily find information on the same topic, they can all participate in informed discussions.

Horizon Middle School language arts teacher Katie Dorr said the devices seem to have made students more engaged. She said her class uses the devices as a collaborative tool, and she often has her kids comment on other students’ writing online.

Dorr said regulating the websites that students visit can be a challenge, but many classrooms allow the teachers to see exactly what the students are doing on all devices at the same time. There are also strong filters on both the tablets and laptops, which may or may not prevent kids from visiting sites they are not supposed to, she said.

So far, there has not been an issue with students breaking or losing their tablets or laptops. Brittain said just two out of 1,200 tablets were lost last year.

Changing the way technology is used in the classroom has been a challenge for some teachers, Dorr said, but for the most part faculty members have been on board.

“Everybody kind of jumped in and decided this is what we’re going to do and this is what’s best for the students,” Dorr said.

Project RED

Ferndale is a a Project RED Signature District, one of 20 in the nation. Project RED is a national organization that researches one-to-one implementation, and Ferndale schools have agreed to be part of the research.

Project RED does not help fund the one-to-one program. Most of the money for the student devices comes out of the district’s technology levy that expires at the end of 2014. The organization estimated that one-to-one implementation would cost $593 per student. For the roughly 1,200 middle school students that received tablets, the cost to the district comes to around $675,000.

Brittain said the district hopes to give devices to one more grade per year until all middle and high school students have a device.

Other districts seem to be keeping their eye on how the one-to-one program works in Ferndale. Kurt Gazow, executive director of technology for the Bellingham School District, said they may implement a one-to-one pilot program before their current technology levy ends in 2017.

Ferndale believes it can save money on paper costs in the long run, Brittain said, but he is unsure how much could potentially be saved until more research is done. The idea of cutting costs on textbooks is also appealing, yet he said that is not why the district decided to go forward with this effort.

“If it’s just about putting a book on a device, we should stay with the books,” Brittain said. “But if the reality is that we can change the way kids go about learning and accessing information, now we can make a difference.”