From Labs to Laptops to Carts at Las Montanas: A Story of Principals at Work

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?



Filed under school leaders, technology use

12 responses to “From Labs to Laptops to Carts at Las Montanas: A Story of Principals at Work

  1. What readers don’t know is whether teachers were using something like Sakai or Moodle to deliver and interact with students. Do ALL teachers use it? What are the channels of communications that are used and how full are they? (email, IM, texting, wikis, online assignments, blogging) When does interaction begin and end? Observers say that students are doing “traditional” things. What do the observers think should be happening? Do teachers keep track of interaction? Do they encourage out of hours contact? (I tell my students I won’t talk after 9 PM or before 7:30 AM)

    Some university professors are used to constant electronic interaction. Why not measure k-12 against their experiences? It seems to me that there is plenty of appropriate pedagogy in higher ed that can be used as a ruler. Howard Rheingold’s classes are a good example of intense technology use. He is involved, passionate, and aware of the route information takes. For example, he has students turn devices off and examine their feelings and differences in behaviour.

    • Howard is a great example in higher ed although he admits that he is new to the art of teaching, he doesn’t mind experimenting. He seems to be engaging his students in a real conversation. I’d love to take one of his classes.

  2. The last remark about “Claus”being moved to another school is interesting. It may turn out to be the single worst decision school district administrators could have made.

    Apropos to the recent furor in Los Angeles, have you noticed that principals’ performances are almost never discussed publicly the way teachers are?

  3. Interesting story, I have a couple of clarifying questions.

    When the school was a “1:1” school did the students take the laptops home?

    When they moved to being a “cart” school, at that point, what percentage of the students had computers and internet at home?


    • larrycuban

      In answer to your questions, Caroline, yes, students could take laptops home. As for percentage of students who had computers and Internet at home, my guess would be over 85%.

  4. @taniasterling

    Challenges associated with leader succession planning, sustaining and maintaining a vision, and implementation pitfalls resonate with me after reading this article. Far too often, we promote good people who understand the local school community and faculty, and address the needs of the student body, to assume positions of what districts feel are ‘higher priority’ elsewhere. What these districts fail to realize is that by removing the key component to this school’s success and growth (Principal Claus), they run the risk of this same school falling backwards.

    Sustaining school improvement and change takes time… and decision makers need to ensure that the schools that are touched by gem administrators like Principal Claus can sustain their own path.

    In response to your question Larry, I ask what has the district done to ensure instructional improvement will continue? How have they developed the collective capacity of the faculty staying behind to ‘stay the course’? Is there a ‘good fit’ replacement on deck to move into Claus’ shoes?

    In the words of the implementation gurus (Hall & Hord, 2006), innovation development (i.e., 1:1 vs. mobile carts) does not equate to innovation implementation (i.e., sustained implementation and improvement over time).


    Hall, G. E., & Hord, S.M. (2006). Implementing change: Patterns, principles and potholes. Boston, MA: Pearson.

  5. I think this example says a lot about leadership and the challenges when it is a revolving door. It says very little to me about the computers used. I think it is a terrible example to try to glean anything from.

    A better example would be a school that implemented a program and saw it through for at least 3 years but preferably 5 years.

    The only things I see from this school are what not to do. It sounds like (from what you share) they need professional development for how to use computers to be a more student-centered classroom. It also sounds like there was not a very concrete plan for the expectations of how the computers were to be used. Teachers do not magically change from “sage on the stage” to a lead learning along-side model without consistent training, modeling, and admin. leadership and support.

    Therefore I would make any conclusions from your observations except to recommend looking at other schools who are implementing computers with more planning and PD.

    • I’d like to hear stories from schools who have managed the technical and the pedagogical challenges of 1:1, mobile labs or other combinations. I wonder what percentage of us are finding the right application for technology in our schools. Could you provide some examples?

      • Bob Calder

        I think Mike is saying that if we have a population in which we are unable to measure learning gains, perhaps we shouldn’t use it for other learning experiments wherein we use practices we don’t know how to measure either.

        David is searching for schools where there are measurable successes. The problem with that is high performing schools have populations with high technical competence and who are well supplied with computing resources. Do they have learning gains that can be attributed to technologic competence ( ie communication and manipulation facility and understanding of online communities with a well developed crap detector)? Do the teachers at those schools have pedagogy that has integrated well with the technology the students have adopted?

        Those are the issues that need to be addressed in order to have a useful conversation.

        PS I had a conversation with our Lit teacher yesterday about this. What current behaviour is an echo of students putting a book jacket on an unacceptable book to distract the teacher?

  6. Pingback: Larry Cuban and Technology | #ChargeOn

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