South Portland 6th-graders to receive MacBooks, iPads

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SOUTH PORTLAND — Sixth graders will be cruising the information superhighway on their new Apple iPads and laptops next year, thanks to money made available to the district through energy savings.

The School Board voted, 4-3, Monday to approve the purchase of the laptops and iPads.

The $120,468 plan expands the Maine Learning Technology Initiative to sixth-grade students at Mahoney and Memorial middle schools. Funding comes, in part, from energy savings in this year’s budget by switching to natural gas the district’s schools.

Superintendent Suzanne Godin wrote in a memo to school board members that Mahoney’s 123 sixth-grade students and Memorial’s class of 140 each have only 50 laptops for all the students. Under the MLTI, students in grades 7-12 are each given their own laptops.

Godin said at the meeting that sixth-graders in South Portland have less computer access than the district’s fifth-grade students.

Under the plan, the students will not be allowed to bring the machines home with them after school, a privilege given to older students that troubled some parents who spoke before the school board.

In an email to board member Richard Carter, one resident wrote that “kids can’t handle the computers. Boys watch porn at home. Girls harass each other on Facebook. It’s a mess.”

While machines are at school, there are security measures in place to prevent students from accessing blacklisted pages such as Facebook or adult websites, but these protections aren’t in place at home or anywhere else outside the school’s network.

Godin said that giving sixth-graders laptops or tablets without sending the machines home would allow educators more time to teach proper use and best practices before giving students 24/7 responsibility for the high-tech tools. Mahoney Principal Kathryn Germani was adamant that laptops and tablets for sixth-graders would not leave the school.

Most residents and all board members thought expanding the MLTI to younger students was a good idea, but not everyone embraced including the iPad.

The plan calls for the purchase of 60 iPads, including five for educators, to be distributed to some sixth-graders at Mahoney next year. The remaining students will receive Apple laptops.

Board members decided to distribute the tablets at Mahoney rather than Memorial middle school because the latter has yet to fill a vacant technology integrator position. Godin also said adding new technology to the classes will be too much to handle, as they will be in the process of restructuring next year.

Godin and Director of Technology Andrew Wallace said it would be wise to test the waters with the iPad, which they said may soon be a viable replacement for laptops at a fraction of the cost. In two years, when the district’s lease on MLTI laptops runs out, the board will decide what sort of machine to use next. 

Godin said running a pilot program with the iPad will give leave the district in a better position to make that decision.

“In South Portland, we’d like to take it slowly and look at it carefully,” Godin said. “Can the iPad two years from now do the same functions at the laptop?”

Godin said new laptops each cost $928 at the beginning of the lease, whereas iPads cost only $480.

“If I had to guess, I’d say that in two years the Department of Education will invest in tablets,” Wallace said. “These might be the right solution for our schools two years from now.”

But many residents and three board members thought the iPads were a poor choice. Dissenters made the arguments that tablets were inadequate for typing and have not been proven as educational tools.

“I think they are toys, and they should be toys for adults,” said Pam Remy, a Preble Street resident.

Mario Moretto can be reached at 781-3661, ext. 106 or Follow Mario on Twitter: @riocarmine.

Sidebar Elements

Small School grapples with ballooning class sizes

SOUTH PORTLAND — School board members on Monday began considering how to accommodate the growing number of students at Dora L. Small Elementary School.

Projections indicate Small school will have 61 incoming kindergarten students next year. School board guidelines stipulate that class sizes in kindergarten through second grade should not exceed 20 students. When class sizes have exceeded the threshold in the past, schools have hired in ed techs.

This school year, Small school has every classroom full, including one science lab that has been converted into a classroom to make space for classes that are already too big.

Superintendent Suzanne Godin and Small Principal Bonnie Hicks put forward five proposals to deal with the ballooning student population:

  • Buy a portable classroom space.
  • Convert the art room to a classroom.
  • Collapse the fourth grade to two classes, with an option to move 10 fourth-graders to Brown or Kaler elementary schools.
  • Move 20 kindergartners to Kaler Elementary School.
  • Move the fifth-grade classes to Mahoney Middle School.

That overwhelming majority of residents who spoke favored the portable classroom scenario, despite the costs and possible downsides of having some students outside the school building.

The school board will continue discussion on how to address Small school’s enrollment at a workshop on June 6.

– Mario Moretto