“I was just blown away by the enthusiasm the students have,” Dial said. “It’s phenomenal what Piedmont has done.“
Two years ago, Piedmont’s schools began equipping students in fourth through 12th grades with Apple laptop computers. Last year, the school system gave iPad tablet computers to students in first through third grades.
Now the Alabama Legislature is planning a similar program for high schools across the state. During the last regular legislative session, lawmakers approved the Alabama Ahead Act, which states that in place of textbooks, high school students will be provided a laptop, a tablet or another wireless device for accessing digital textbooks by the next school year.
Schools can opt out of the plan, but Dial said he expects 80 percent of Alabama’s schools will join the program in the first year.
According to Dial, who co-sponsored the bill in the Senate, switching from printed books to e-books will save the state money, especially at the high-school level where books are more costly. Dial couldn’t say how much money lawmakers believed the switch would save, and he said legislators are still working with the Alabama Department of Education to determine how the plan would be implemented.
“We just need to determine how we’re going to roll it out,” Dial said.
A task force has been appointed to develop a plan, which lawmakers expect to have in place by October, Dial said.
Until then, officials won’t have details about how the plan will be put in place, said Malissa Valdes-Hubert, a spokeswoman for the Alabama Department of Education.
The act authorizes the Alabama Public School and College Authority to issue up to $100 million in bonds to pay for the purchase of devices for high school students, Dial said.
Dial said legislators could also opt to pay for the plan by allocating money as a line item in the state’s education budget, Dial said.
Dial said he favors the bond-issue option.
Each year for four years, ninth-grade students will be issued devices. By the time the fourth year begins, all Alabama high school students will have the devices, according to the legislation.
Dial said he wants to see each student in Alabama’s high schools equipped with a wireless device. Eventually, however, he said he thinks the state will be able to provide devices to students in all grades.
“I’d like to have selected the whole school but we’ve got to look financially at what we can afford,” Dial said.
Not all schools will be ready for the technology. To opt into the program, participating schools must have the infrastructure for wireless Internet access.
Officials of Calhoun County and Jacksonville City Schools said their schools are ready to take part in such a program.
“I don’t have all the details yet, but it’s something we’re very interested in learning more about,” said Jon Paul Campbell, superintendent of Jacksonville City Schools. “There is a lot of movement with that initiative. It would be very timely for us.”
Dial said school systems that already have similar initiatives in place would be eligible for funding under the act.
The program will save the state money, Dial said. Each device, he expects, will cost between $200 and $300.
In all, it would cost roughly $100 million to begin the program, supporters of the measure say.
In recent years the state has spent around $10 million per year on textbooks. But before the recession hit, that figure was roughly $50 million each year, according to an official at the Legislative Fiscal Office.
Alabama isn’t the only state considering such an initiative, as states across the country look for ways to put technology in students’ hands, according to education officials.
Dial believes that by getting out ahead of the curve, Alabama will advance public education in the state.
“I’m enthused about it,” Dial said. “We can do it right and we can phase it in and we can change education and that’s what we’re excited about.”
Staff writer Laura Johnson: 256-235-3544. On Twitter @LJohnson_Star.