“I busted her at about 11:30 one night. She was supposed to be asleep,” Holcomb said. Holcomb decided from then on to turn off her home’s wireless Internet modem before bed. “She is my responsibility until she is 21 or moves out on her own. Whichever comes first,” she said.
Holcomb is one of hundreds of parents with children in Piedmont schools — which provides a laptop computer to each student — many of whom are still working through the challenges and responsibilities that come with powerful new technology. Although the Holcombs have owned computers for many years, Holcomb herself having taken computer courses while in nursing school, many families in Piedmont are just being introduced to the online world.
Through grants and local funds, the three-school district began in 2010 giving each student in grades 4 through 12 a MacBook laptop which the child could take home at the end of the school day. Since then, more laptops for lower grades have arrived and are being used in classrooms; a citywide wireless network is nearly complete, which will provide free Internet service to the homes of every student and faculty member.
Giving each student access to computers, no matter what the family’s socioeconomic status is, was a way to make sure all kids have the same opportunities, Piedmont school administrators say.
But according to some researchers, kids from poorer households tend to spend more time online playing games, watching videos and connecting to social networking sites than do their wealthier counterparts. A 2010 study by the Kaiser Family Foundation states that children of parents who do not have a college degree spend 11.5 hours each day exposed to media through television, computers and other electronic devices. The study reports that children with college-educated parents spend about 10 hours each day exposed to the same media.
Maybe so, said Piedmont School superintendent Matt Akin, but the advantages far outweigh the negatives, and besides, he’s not so sure playing games and connecting to others are actually negatives.
“If the point is that low-income kids shouldn’t be given the technology because they’re going to be easily distracted with the entertainment aspect instead of the learning aspect, I think the entertainment and the learning aspect are so intertwined you’re never going to separate them,” Akin said.
About 70 percent of Piedmont’s just-over 1,200 students receive free and reduced-price lunches. A child qualifies for free or reduced-price lunches based upon the family’s income, making it a good measure of poverty in a school district.
Todd Watkins, Piedmont schools’ coordinator of digital curriculum, said additional training for both students and parents is required in light of the new applications of technology in today’s classroom. Administrators began in 2010 holding mandatory meetings with parents, giving basic tips and showing videos about possible dangers of social networking sites. They’ve held other classes throughout the year; four more are scheduled over the summer.
It’s a way, administrators said, of making sure everyone knows how best to use the tools that are given to them.
“I think that our kids, when you weigh the good and the bad, are at an advantage. Even if they are using Facebook at night. Hopefully they are,” Akin said. “Because they’re learning how to use it and how to use it appropriately.”
The district’s schoolwide wireless Internet access is controlled by the Alabama Supercomputer Authority, which has chosen to block Facebook. But once the kids go home, they can log on.
During school, each principal has access to software that can project the image of any student’s computer screen onto the administrator’s computer screen at any time.
“If a kid’s doing something inappropriate they can send them a message or lock their screen …” Akin said. “So that’s part of what’s in place but more than that it’s up to individual teachers in the classrooms. It’s a classroom management issue. And it was easier this past year than it was the previous year.”
There are still parents who choose not to let their children use Facebook, and Akin said he understands their concerns for the safety of their children. He leaves that decision up to each parent, and points to the district’s policy, which recommends that parents should not let their children use the computers without supervision.
There will be times when the kids use computers without it though, Akin said, but he points to Piedmont High School’s recent scores on the Alabama High School Graduation exam as evidence that giving kids from lower income households technology may not be a bad idea.
The graduation exam places passing students in one of two categories; level three means the student is proficient while level four means they’ve scored as advanced. Overall, in both level three and four categories, the percentage of Piedmont students passing the graduation exam rose by 7.6 percent from the 2009-10 school year, before laptops were issued, to 2010-11, after the computers were handed out, but there was a 19.5 percent jump in the level four category alone.
Looking at just the students who receive free and reduced lunches, Piedmont’s poorest kids went from 4.6 percent in level four to 27.7 percent.
Minority students saw a drastic increase in the percentage of students passing with level four scores as well, rising from 8.3 percent to 26.6 percent.
“So we can’t say that just because we gave every kid a MacBook it happened, but we did give every kid a MacBook, and really I think it’s a reflection of engaged learning,” Akin said.
Piedmont fifth-grade reading teacher Michele Downey begins each year by teaching what she calls “digital citizenship,” or how to responsibly use the Internet.
Downey keeps her desk in her classroom positioned so that she can see, at a glance, each student’s computer screen. Do they, when she leaves the room, use their computer to chat with a friend? It’s possible, she said, but not for long.
“When I go back to my little perch I’ll either catch them or I won’t, but they’re back on what I need for them to be on because they know I’m checking,” Downey said. “You will have those that push the limits. Most definitely, but you had those before the MacBooks.”
Downey admits using the laptops is more work for parents, their children and teachers, but she said she is certain it’s worth it.
“These kids are learning so much more. There is so much positive going on,” Downey said.
Poverty is an unfortunate reality for many of her students, Downey said, but it doesn’t have to be there future.
“That’s their world and they live in that world, and yet we give them this computer and we guide them in the proper use of it, and hopefully allow them to see there is a bigger and better world out there,” she said. “And one day I hope that they are in that bigger and better world.”
Star staff writer Eddie Burkhalter: 256-235-3563 or on Twitter @burkhalter_star.