As tax free weekend rolls around, parents may consider adding the Apple iPad to their child’s school supply list
by Brett Buckner
Special to the Star
Aug 05, 2012 | 4519 views |  0 comments | 13 13 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Tracey Wolfson is at a bit of a crossroads. She and her family often use Alabama’s Tax-Free Weekend as a way to stock up on various school supply necessities.

From binders and pens to new jeans and dresses for her three children, Wolfson hits the stores “on a mission” to save wherever she can.

“School shopping is getting more and more expensive,” says Wolfson, whose children are 6, 9 and 12. “But these are the things they have to have, so if we can save even a little money, it’s worth the hassle of fighting the crowds.”

But this year, the line between want and need has blurred. Wolfson’s 12-year-old son, Zack, want’s an Apple iPad, which he promises to use for more than video games.

“I can use it for school and homework,” he says without a hint of duplicity. “A lot of my friends have ‘em and there are a lot of Web sites that I can go to for help when I need it … it’s not just for games.”

Wolfson’s wary, mainly because iPads cost upwards of $500 – placing these Internet-accessible tablets within the confines of the tax-free guidelines for computers/computer equipment.

“That’s a lot of money,” she says. “And I don’t know if it’s worth it … but I’m still considering it because all three of my kids can use it.”

Wolfson isn’t alone. Many parents are weighing the benefits of such a purchase as more and more schools aspire to integrate such technology into their curriculums.

Piedmont City Schools have set the standard locally for technology in education. With more than 1,200 students in three schools, the district is relatively small but in 2010 it began leasing MacBook’s for students in grades fourth-12th to use 24 hours a day. Last year, a $160,000 grant from the Susie Parker Stringfellow Health Fund of the Community Foundation of Northeast Alabama expanded the program to include computers, iPads and iPod Touch handheld devices for students in kindergarten – third grade.

Superintendent Matt Akin, has witnessed firsthand the value such technology has when used for a student’s education. And though he prefers laptops, Akin sees advantages with iPads.

“Speaking just as a parent, iPads have so many tools and programs and online resources available that can benefit the students that it can really individualize learning,” Akin says. “There’s no doubt that it’s a [more affordable] way to put the power of knowledge and access to knowledge in your child’s hands.”

A study last fall conducted by educators in Auburn, Maine who began instructing 266 kindergarteners using the iPad 2 found the students scored higher on literacy tests and were more enthused about learning than those who don’t.

Last month, Apple ramped up its educational efforts by launching iBooks 2 and iBooks Author, an e-book creation platform teachers and smaller publishers can use to develop apps. The company also expanded iTunes U for K-12 educators, teaming up with publishing giants McGraw-Hill, Pearson and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt to offer interactive textbooks.

Such advancements are changing the traditional concept of the classroom and parents and teachers alike need to embrace these changes given that technology has become engrained in the lives of their students, says Lisa Amerson, technology director for the Calhoun County School District.

“We must not be afraid to consider all reasonable tools for educating our children,” she says, “especially when those are tools they may be expected to use in college or career.”

Of course one of the main concerns parents face are the various inappropriate sites their child may have access to, both at school and at home. But that is also something school systems must and have taken into account, Amerson says.

“All schools take seriously the safety of their students both physically and virtually,” she says. “It is a balancing act between access to a plethora of free educational resources and protecting the student from online dangers. We have found that students engaged in digital lessons are usually too absorbed in doing their work to spend time trying to access blocked or inappropriate materials. Typically students will surpass our expectations in their creativity and effort spent on digital projects.

“Bottom line - if we don’t prepare our children today to compete in tomorrow’s work force someone else will be standing there to take their jobs.”

But not everyone is convinced of the value of iPads and the like.

“There is very little evidence that kids learn more, faster or better by using these machines,” Larry Cuban, a professor emeritus of education at Stanford University told Time Magazine. “iPads are marvelous tools to engage kids, but then the novelty wears off and you get into hard-core issues of teaching and learning.”

While Piedmont has become a leader in terms of technology in the classroom and other local school systems appear to be following suit, the reality is that not all children can provide $500 computers. Those children, as well as their families, must not be left behind, says Calhoun County Family Court judge Brenda Stedham.

“Based on the public school students that I see in my courtroom, in domestic relations, dependency and delinquency cases, there is no way the vast majority can afford an iPad or a laptop,” she says. “And these are kids from all socio-economic strata. All of their parents may have not lost jobs in the recession, but their budgets have been impacted by it.”

As for Wolfson and her family, she’s still considering what to do.

“We can’t really afford an iPad,” she says. “But that just seems to be the way things are going, and if it will help them learn, in the long run I’m always going to try and do what’s best for my kids.”

Contact Brett Buckner at brettbuckner@ymail.com.
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