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High-tech gear in schools offers lesson in economics

Medfield breaks new ground by having families buy iPads for eighth-graders, but some area parents, educators say districts should pay for classroom tool

Blake Middle School eighth-graders tap into their iPads during a social science and history class led by Cynthia McClellan.

John Tlumacki/ Globe Staff

Blake Middle School eighth-graders tap into their iPads during a social science and history class led by Cynthia McClellan.

Paper? Check. Pencils? Got ’em. And — if you’re a Medfield eighth-grader — don’t forget the iPad.

The tablet computing devices have become an integral part of the school district’s educational model for the eighth grade, after a successful pilot program last year. But, without room in the budget to outfit every kid with the technology, Medfield officials asked parents to add iPads to their back-to-school shopping lists this fall.

Students in teacher Cynthia McClellan's 8th grade social science and history class at the Blake Middle School use their iPads during class.

John Tlumacki/ Globe Staff

Students in teacher Cynthia McClellan's 8th grade social science and history class at the Blake Middle School use their iPads during class.

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At a time when technology is becoming as integral as backpacks and gym shoes for some students, the policy raises the question of whether expensive electronics should be considered “school supplies” like calculators, notebooks, and binder, or whether districts should provide required devices in the same way they hand out textbooks.

Nat Vaughn, principal of Blake Middle School in Medfield, said he was “cautiously optimistic” when the district first surveyed parents last winter to determine how they would feel about buying iPads for their kids to use at school.

“We said, ‘We feel this is really enhancing our education. Here’s why, and here’s what it looks like,’ ” Vaughn said. “Overwhelmingly, they said they would support this initiative.”

Vaughn acknowledged that some families “had a tough time philosophically” with the idea of purchasing expensive technology for a public-school program, and he said other families simply couldn’t afford it. Kids who weren’t able to get their own devices were allowed to use one of the iPads from last year’s pilot program.

“I don’t want any child to feel left out,” Vaughn said.

‘We feel this is really enhancing our education. Here’s why, and here’s what it looks like.’ 

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Medfield’s approach to incorporating technology may be without precedent in the state.

Wellesley school officials considered asking parents of fifth-graders to purchase iPads for this fall, but ultimately decided to pay for them devices using school funds and grants.

State education guidelines tag tablets and other computing devices — along with textbooks — as materials that are intended for use by several students over a period of years and therefore should be purchased by schools. But, the guidelines say, districts can “encourage” students to purchase the devices. The state also advises schools to provide devices for students whose families won’t or can’t buy them, the way Medfield has done.

Jeff Wulfson, deputy commissioner of the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, said he doesn’t know of any other school districts in Massachusetts that have asked families to purchase computing devices. But, he said, the state doesn’t want to “stifle innovation” by barring the practice.

“We’re trying not to rule with an iron fist, but make sure kids are being treated fairly and have opportunities,” Wulfson said.

Kim Wietrecki, a board member for the Medfield middle school’s Community School Association and parent of a sixth-grader and an eighth-grader there, said there was initially a “fair amount of push back from parents” about buying the iPads. But, she said, most families ultimately supported the program.

“I’m really very impressed with how much my daughter is using this iPad day-to-day,” Wietrecki said. “It’s a tremendous resource. All of her studying material is all on her iPad. They’re at a point now if they have a teacher who’s not using it, my daughter gets frustrated.”

But Alex Spitzer, father of a sixth-grader in Medfield, said he’s not convinced that tablet computing devices are a panacea, and called the idea of shelling out several hundred dollars for his child to use one at school “pretty crazy.”

“The technology changes so quickly,” Spitzer said. “If we buy one of these, do we use these for one or two years, and then they come out with something better?”

Vaughn said the schools are committed to using the devices for at least three years, with this year’s eighth-graders slated to continue using iPads in high school. Officials haven’t decided whether to ask the parents of next year’s eighth-graders to purchase the devices, he said.

Cynthia McClelland, an eighth-grade teacher in Medfield, said students love working on the iPads. She has used them for projects such as an interactive timeline and a “Renaissance roundtable” — an exercise where students seat various historical figures around a dinner table and then record their explanations of the seating charts.

McClelland’s children attend school in a different district, but she said she wouldn’t be fazed if she were asked to buy iPads to support their education.

“Personally, I wouldn’t have a problem with it, because I have the benefit of seeing what it can do in the classroom,” she said.

Medfield is a relatively wealthy town with a population that has earned a reputation for being extremely supportive of its schools — advantages that not all communities have.

Michael Welch, principal of Framingham High School, said he wouldn’t even consider asking families in his district — where around 800 of the high school’s approximately 2,000 students receive free or reduced-price lunches, based on household income — to purchase an expensive piece of technology.

“How do you tell 800 kids that they’re going to have to produce something that you know they’re not going to be able to?” Welch said.

Around 100 students wait for the library to open before the start of classes each day so that they can get on a computer, he said, and Framingham High is purchasing 400 inexpensive Chromebook laptop computers this year to help give kids more access to technology.

Some school districts have “bring-your-own-device” programs, which encourage students to bring tablets, laptops, or smartphones to school. In those programs, students are typically allowed to work on whatever device they happen to have.

In schools where all students work on a single device like an iPad, the devices are typically paid for by the schools. Maynard, for example, used funds from its new high school construction project to buy the tablets for students.

Robert Gerardi, Maynard’s superintendent, said the district will replace a certain number of the devices each year, and noted the technology is already helping to somewhat offset the cost.

“We’re saving a ton in paper,” Gerardi said. “We’re saving a ton in textbooks. You have to weigh that out.”

He said technology is becoming a necessity — rather than a luxury item — in schools, and compared it to a utility like heat or electricity.

“It is becoming so pervasive that it is literally going to be a requirement,” he said.

Calvin Hennick can be reached at calvinhennick@yahoo.com.
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