Our Voice: Summer iPad loan program worth paying attention to

The news that the Pasco School District was spending $1 million on iPads for students to use during the summer break struck some folks as odd and others as egregious spending.

We were skeptical as well.

But after spending some time talking to two of the district's key staff members involved in the program, it makes a lot more sense.

We now are thinking this program sounds innovative, rather than wasteful.

The iPads will be distributed to students at five elementary schools listed as priority schools where the state says student learning needs improvement.

Statistics show less than 40 percent of the students at those schools are at grade level in reading and math; 93 percent qualify for free- or reduced-price meals. There is a direct link to poverty and low test scores.

Students finishing second and third grades at Whittier, Virgie Robinson, Rowena Chess, Longfellow and Emerson will be offered the opportunity to check out one of the iPads for the summer.

The goal is to avoid a "summer slide" for students who don't have ready access to books or computers. Those who do have these tools tend to build on what they learned during the school year, while those who don't will be stuck at the same skills level when school ended in June, say school officials. They don't necessarily lose skills, but they don't enhance them either.

So 1,200 families will get the iPads preloaded with about 40 books in English and Spanish from Scholastic and math applications.

Internet access and the camera function will be disabled, as will the ability tobuy apps or games. The students can choose to have the iPad read to them, and help with pronunciation of words. It also makes the book interactive.

Pasco school officials have put a lot of thought into the program and studied other districts that use iPads in schools. They know first-hand that kids are eager to use iPads and believe the opportunity to take one home will bolster learning.

They say by "gameifying" education, kids are more eager to participate.

Students and their parents will have to sign a contract agreeing to care for the iPads, and there might be a small fee to participate in the program. The iPads will be wrapped in protective cases to try to prevent damage.

Students also will be required to check in once a week with school officials in person. That will help the district track how and how much the students are using the devices, as well as to keep an eye on the condition of the devices.

The check-ins will be at three different locations and times and will take some staff time to manage.

Students know this is a privilege, not a right, and that the privilege can be revoked at any time for either neglect or abuse of the program.

The devices cost about $400 each, the military-grade protective covers cost $30 in addition to the software. Staff time will add to the total price tag.

The program is being paid for with Title I money that comes from a federal grant and is specifically dedicated to helping students who have fallen behind. None of the funding for this program will come from local levy money.

After the summer, the district expects to use the iPads for four to five years, either in the classroom or in programs like this.

We are interested to see the data they collect this fall on how many students used the materials on the iPads and if it improves their skills sets. In our view, it's worth a try.

It's a program other districts will want to keep an eye on as well. This is a test year. We're eager to see the results.