Between 1998 and September 2010, four principals entered and exited Las Montanas. They traveled a road that went from stationary computer labs to a 1:1 school to half-mobile cart, half-1:1 school. Here is my version of what happened.
Lydia French (all names are fictitious) presided for four years over the largely minority, 1300-student school after it became a technology magnet for the district. The school had a rich array of computer labs and a core of tech-savvy teachers. In these years, academic achievement declined and neighborhood gang activities spilled over the school. The most serious incident was a student being stabbed near the school but off-campus. Parent and student perceptions of the school turned negative. Teacher turnover increased. Student enrollment dropped. Lydia French exited and Dorothy Bunch entered.
District officials worried about Las Montanas. To improve the image of the school and boost enrollment–it had fallen to about 1000 students–the district packaged local and federal funds to make Las Montanas a 1:1 laptop program in 2002.
Dorothy Bunch and Carl Hooper, the veteran technology coordinator, created an infrastructure including faculty development to sustain a 1:1 program and campaigned to attract students to the school. Each student received a laptop in 2003-2004.
In early 2004, however, the rules of the game changed. After consecutive years of low scores on tests, the state put Las Montanas on academic probation. A few months later, Principal Bunch left and Carolyn Claus took over.
Claus began fixing the school academically. While laptops were distributed to students, there would be total concentration on improving scores in language arts, math, and other academic subjects.
With state funds, Claus hired coaches who with the faculty developed pacing calendars for what content had to be covered when. They constructed benchmark tests that would assess student progress. Newly purchased texts aligned daily lessons to state standards. By the end of two years, state scores had climbed sufficiently for the state to end academic probation. Student enrollment increased. Teacher turnover fell.
Early on, however, Claus had expressed both financial and instructional concerns about the future of 1:1 at Las Montanas. Because state funding for California districts had shrunk, local funds for purchasing new laptops (for increased student enrollment) and replacement of “retired” machines, “refreshing” laptops every summer, and costs for maintaining machines had risen to over $500,000. With less state and district funds, Claus worried about finding that money every year.
Claus also expressed concerns about what she and her three assistant principals saw in classrooms when they did 10-15-minute walk-throughs. In 2008, she brought in a district team to observe classrooms and report back to the faculty what they saw. In both instances of classroom observations, there was infrequent use of laptops for instruction. When teachers did ask students to use the machines, more often than not–according to the reports of both Las Montanas administrators and the district team—observers saw more traditional classroom instruction such as taking notes, doing homework, looking up items on the Internet, etc.
In 2008, these data, including rising costs for the program were shared with faculty. When teachers were polled about continuing the program with modifications, the results were unequivocal. Strong majorities of teachers expressed great support for continuing the program even amid complaints about laptops distracting student attention during lessons.
Again in 2008, district contributions to Las Montanas fell. Federal funds had dried up. With less and less outside money available to give every high school student a laptop, Principal Claus, concerned about finding replacement funds and limited use of technologies in lessons, offered the faculty varied options for 1:1 laptops. After consulting with teachers, in 2008-2009 ninth through eleventh graders received laptops. Seniors got access to laptops through teacher sign-ups for three mobile carts (each holding 32 laptops). In 2009-2010, tenth through twelfth graders got machines and ninth grade teachers had to sign up for mobile carts.
Then, for 2010-2011, with even further drains on the budget, Principal Claus made clear to the faculty that laptops for every student was financially untenable because enrollment increased and many laptops were out of warranty and could not be replaced. She again consulted with the faculty. Most wanted a continuation of some grades receiving the machines and having a few carts rather than moving to all-cart program. With the faculty split over what to do, Claus made the decision and Las Montanas became an all-mobile cart high school.
A few months later, the superintendent asked Claus to take over another troubled high school elsewhere in the district. After six years, Claus left Las Montanas.
Then, in the first month of school, new principal Dave Bastedo surveyed teachers about an all-cart program and found that teachers wanted laptops distributed to 11th and 12th graders with carts for the 9th and 10th. Half-and-half 1:1 and carts for 2010-2011.
What lessons for districts and schools, if any, emerge from this story of a richly-endowed stationary computer lab school in 1998 slowly moving toward an all-mobile lab school?