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Parent, ACLU challenge Upton iPad policy

In public education circles, giving students 21st-century skills seems to mean putting tablets, laptops, and other electronic devices into their hands early. But Mike Watson, the parent of a student in the Mendon-Upton Regional School District, is worried that the district’s iPad policy excludes children whose parents cannot afford — or do not wish to purchase — the devices.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts recently filed a complaint, on behalf of Watson, with the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. And on Monday, the department contacted the school district asking for its response.

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The education agency gave the district until this Friday to respond. And if Mendon-Upton’s policy does not comply with state law, it said, it will order the district to take “corrective action.”

Under the district’s One to One initiative, parents of Miscoe Middle School students have three options for providing the child with an iPad: They can purchase a device outright; lease one over a three-year period, for $180 per year, and make a final $1 payment to purchase it after the three-year period; or the student may borrow a district-owned iPad to be used at school but not taken home.

Also, the district will buy iPads for students who receive free or reduced lunches, based on their family’s household income.

The district says its iPad policy is designed to promote equal access for all, but Watson disagrees.

“If you pay $600, then your child can take it on the bus, to recess, or bring it home,” Watson said. “They have access to educational apps, collaborative tools, so they can become more familiar with the tool. The problem is, kids with 24/7 access will take tests faster, complete in-class assignments faster, and some testing material is timed.”

‘The School Committee deliberated and was very clear they wanted to make sure there was equal access.’

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Students who borrow the devices will be at a disadvantage, he contends, by having to leave the iPad at school.

Watson said he appreciates the district’s commitment to integrating technology into the curriculum. But he believes that in its zeal to get ahead of the curve, it failed to consider the effect on a small number of students who will not have their own devices.

The issue will be the main topic of discussion at the Mendon-Upton Regional School Committee during its 7 p.m. meeting Monday at Nipmuc Regional High School, 90 Pleasant St. in Upton.

Joseph Maruszczak, the district’s superintendent, said the policy was reviewed by its lawyer early in the year.

“The School Committee deliberated and was very clear they wanted to make sure there was equal access,” Maruszczak said during a phone interview, adding that just one parent had complained.

But Laura Rótolo, a lawyer with the American Civil Liberties Union, said her organization believes the policy violates state education law that guarantees equal access.

“We believe the law is clear,” Rótolo said during a telephone interviewon Thursday. “DESE guidance supports that interpretation of the law: A school district must purchase, at public expense, instructional materials that are used and reused for several years necessary for curriculum. They need to be provided.”

The ACLU’s objective is to get the school district to change its policy so that all students have the same access to iPads.

“So much learning happens at home,” Rótolo said. “Students who use tablets at home play educational games with each other. They’re interactive.’’ The situation makes it possible for children without home access to feel left out, she said.

Watson said he is certain that most parents in the two-town district would not ask the school district for a refund if a court ruled that the district was violating state education law, and had to purchase the devices and reimburse parents.

“I don’t think there was any ill intent’’ by the district, he said. “It’s a budget issue.”

Ashoke Ghosh, director of technology for the Hopkinton school district, said its One to One program, which is at the high school only, is not committed to putting an iPad into every student’s hands. The district offers three options for ensuring that students have a laptop: They may bring their own; lease-to-own a MacBook Air through the district; or borrow a laptop and take it home to do school work.

The district is considering device options for kindergarten through Grade 8, Ghosh said.

“We budgeted loaners to supplement, to have equitable access at school and at home,” Ghosh said. The district couldn’t afford to buy a laptop for every student, he said, “so we partnered with parents. It took five years, one grade level at a time.”

He said 80 percent of students are participating in the lease-to-own option.

Rótolo, the ACLU attorney, said the issue has been “popping up around the state and the country.”

Other districts in the region have also grappled with the issue. Maureen Sabolinski, superintendent of Franklin’s schools, said equitable access has driven the development of her district’s technology policy, based on state law.

“Chapter 71, Section 48 addresses the responsibility of districts to provide textbooks and educational material to students,” Sabolinski said. “When we committed to a One to One, we understood that we would need to offer technology free of charge to all students. We are rolling out One to One Chromebooks, and the cost has been included in our building project.”

In Wellesley, Superintendent David Lussier said the district’s iPad policy, put into place with a pilot program for fifth-graders last fall, generated “very healthy conversation.”

Lussier said Wellesley’s policy is similar to Mendon-Upton’s — with the three options, and access to iPads during the school day for students who do not have their own.

“From our perspective, the tablet is still a supplementary device, another tool to supplement what’s happening’’ in the classroom, Lussier said.

In a recent weekly newsletter, Mitchell D. Chester, the state education agency’s commissioner, said tablets and other devices “fall into the category of instructional materials that, similar to textbooks, are intended for schools to purchase and use and reuse over a period of years.

“If such technology is required,” he wrote, “the school may encourage each student to purchase these devices. Students are likely to do so because they may need those devices for future classes and other use outside of schools. We advise schools to be prepared to provide such devices free of charge to students whose families do not choose to buy them or cannot afford to do so.”

The commissioner was out of the office and could not be reached for comment on Thursday, but department spokeswoman Jacqueline Reis said in an e-mail that “tablets and computers are similar to textbooks in that they are reusable, but they are different in ways important to this policy.

“Tablets and computers have a wide range of uses outside of class, and because of this, families are likely to be purchasing them already. In contrast, an eighth-grade math textbook is not going to be useful for much besides eighth-grade math, and families are less likely to already have such textbooks.”

Hattie Bernstein can be reached at hbernstein1@hotmail.com.
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