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Texas School District Pays $20M for iPads

The McAllen school district is within the nation’s poorest metro area, and it's reduced spending on instruction. But district officials are betting their tech investment will pay off.

McAllen Independent School District
Do tablet computers help kids learn? One school district believes they do, and it’s banking on the devices in a major way. This year thousands of students in McAllen, Texas, will receive high-tech Apple products courtesy of the local school district, which is investing more than $20 million in the devices and infrastructure needed to support them. The McAllen Independent School District has already given out about 5,600 of the devices, which include iPods for students in pre-kindergarten through second grade, and iPads for students in third grade and up. Next school year, the district will start distributing the devices to each of its more than 25,000 students.

What’s especially remarkable about the program is that it’s coming from an unusual place: McAllen, located on the Mexican border, has extremely high levels of poverty. More than two-thirds of the students are considered economically disadvantaged. Last fall, a Census brief named the McAllen metro area the poorest in the nation. But Superintendent James Ponce says that’s all the more reason for the district to spend money on the technology.

The project, Ponce says, is part of the district’s effort to improve students’ familiarity with technology and help them develop new ways to learn and study. The investment is the result of a recommendation by a school district panel, which included teachers, students, parents and others. The panel determined that the district’s existing approach to technology -- installing a few desktop computers in the back of every classroom -- wasn’t working. Ponce says that by investing in iPods and iPads, the district will get a better return on its investment in technology, since students will spend more time with the devices, even outside of school hours. (The school district will own the devices, but students are encouraged to take them home.)

The $20 million price tag over five years includes the cost of blanketing campuses with Wi-Fi, training staff and buying systems to manage the devices. It’s being paid for through a combination of local funds, federal grants and stimulus money, and the federal E-rate program, which provides discounted telecommunications services to schools. The investment comes even at a time when McAllen has reduced its education spending in general. This year the city cut $6.5 million from its instruction budget, and the number of full-time equivalent teachers is down 10 percent from 2008. Ponce says the district is still within designated staffing levels, and class sizes haven’t substantially increased.

Aside from the affordability question, though, is a larger debate over technology in the classroom, and whether a government-issued iPad helps students learn. About a decade ago, some schools started embracing a movement known as “one-to-one” that sought to provide every student with access to a laptop. A review of the research on those programs, published last year by the educational leadership nonprofit ASCD, found mixed results. “Rather than being a cure-all or silver bullet, one-to-one laptop programs may simply amplify what’s already occurring -- for better or worse -- in classrooms, schools and districts,” wrote author Bryan Goodwin.

McAllen district officials say the investment has been worthwhile even if there aren’t hard numbers to back it up. Some students have been downloading vocabulary apps to help prepare for the SAT, while others have videotaped lectures and photographed the chalkboard to study later, district leaders say.

The district has already seen its wireless bandwidth usage triple, suggesting that students are embracing the technology. Many students hang around campus after school and on weekends to use wireless Internet service they lack at home, says Ponce. “We have anecdotal evidence of teachers and students showing, in a short time, a change in the way they do business.”

Caroline Cournoyer is GOVERNING's senior web editor.
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