WAYZATA, Minn. -- As kids head back to school, it's likely many backpacks will contain some kind of tablet or cell phone.
Once deemed a distraction, technology is now being welcomed into the classroom as a tool for both students and teachers.
Nearly 10 large Metro area districts from Wayzata to Edina and Hopkins have passed technology levies to bring more devices into classrooms.
Weeks before the start of school, Wayzata middle schoolers lined up to receive their school issued iPad. More than 3,000 students in the Wayzata district from fourth through ninth grade will begin the school year with an iPad. The district calls it a "one-to-one" initiative with an eventual goal of providing one iPad for every student.
"When I was in school, most of your resources were the textbook. The iPad really opens up learning to students to be a 24-7 teacher to them. So if they are struggling with their learning, they don't have to wait to get to school to ask their teacher for help. The iPad is a wonderful teacher," said Jill Johnson, the Wayzata Schools Executive Director of Teaching and Learning.
Other districts aren't yet connected to that luxury. The Osseo district has a "Bring Your Own Device" policy but is hoping voters will approve a tech levy this fall.
"Kids are learning more and they are learning faster. We know that to be true," said Tim Wilson, Osseo School District Chief Technology Officer. "Eventually, we need to get to a place where every student has an Internet-connected device in his or her hands all the time."
Wilson said the district suffers from electronic equity for those who can't afford their own devices. It will ask voters to approve a levy that brings $5 million per year for the next 10 years. Supporters of the levy say the current lack of technology could cause students to lag behind their peers in using technology for learning.
In Edina this past month, second grade teacher Kristy Ardinger trained fellow district elementary teachers on how to use iPad apps that spark learning in her classroom. The apps teach everything from spelling to storytelling and math. She uses a student contract to set boundaries, but says the opportunity is wide open.
"You are limiting kids if you are not letting them explore on their own and share it. This is what they are going to be doing," said Ardinger. "It has made a world of difference in the classroom for me just watching kids being engaged and actually learning from each other. I know it's a big jump a lot of times to spend that (money), but I mean, it's the future."
Edina Public Schools launched a pilot program called "ELearning2" partnered with Best Buy to offer devices at low rates to sixth and ninth graders. For instance, a 7-inch tablet is available to Edina families for $29.99.
"Their backpacks are heavy enough already," said Tim Berndt, the Edina District Instructional Technology Specialist. "We are just trying to stay ahead of the kids and the industry."
Berndt says lower income students on free or reduced lunch receive a Samsung Chrome Book laptop for free. He says the idea is gaining national attention, and he's been fielding calls from states like Colorado, Texas and Florida. While the program grows, other students are encouraged to bring a device they choose, but teachers set the guidelines in the "device-neutral district."
"I've used my phone to answer quiz questions," said Evan Pastor, an Edina sophomore. "It's an app and they graded us based on those quizzes we took on our phones. It not only made it easier for the teacher, but it was kind of fun in a way for us to try something new rather than take a test on paper."
A recent survey by Pearson, a learning company, shows most kids believe mobile devices change how they learn. The survey found 44 percent of students from elementary all the way to high school have used a smart phone for their schoolwork. About one third of students surveyed used tablets for school work and half of those students owned their own devices.
That's a trend reflected even at Frost Lake Technology Magnet School in St. Paul, a school that administrators say is high in poverty. The school has dedicated iPads to one specific fifth grade classroom. There, the teachers use the devices to teach English and improve study habits. Administrators say they have watched the technology transform families.
"At the beginning of last school year, 9 of our 27 students in that room did not have Internet access. By the end of the year, only two of the students did not have Internet access. So as the iPads were going home, the parents were starting to see the need for it," said Frost Lake Principal Stacey Kadrmas.
She says seven families in that same classroom saved up and purchased iPads by the end of the year. Frost Lake teachers use apps that help create instead of consume. They find the engagement helps close the achievement gap. The once banned devices have given both teachers and student a lifelong lesson in possibility.
"Now that it is taking off, we don't even know for sure where we are going to end up. It's very exciting," said Kadrmas.
A recent Pew Research Center study found 73 percent of Advanced Placement and National Writing Project teachers said their students use phones in the classroom or to complete assignments.
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