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Lakota’s historic digital leap: Laptops for junior high, high school students

Students at Lakota Plains Junior School in Liberty Township are all smiles after receiving their Chromebooks as part of a historic pilot program to enhance student learning through the digital devices.
Students at Lakota Plains Junior School in Liberty Township are all smiles after receiving their Chromebooks as part of a historic pilot program to enhance student learning through the digital devices.

Butler County’s largest school system is taking a historical step to expand digital learning options to all junior high and some high school students by handing out laptop computers.

Lakota Schools recently launched a new program to provide laptop computers to more than 2,500 students in the district’s four junior high schools with every seventh and eighth grader being loaned Chromebook laptops.

Dubbed the “one-to-one initiative” by officials in the 16,500-student school system, the laptops remain Lakota Schools property with restrictions on what students can access online.

The experiment’s first phase is going so well, said school officials, that students at Lakota’s two freshman schools and two high schools will also get laptops in January, earlier than officials originally projected.

“The one-to-one initiative is enabling our students to expand their learning opportunities beyond the walls of the classroom,” said Lakota Schools Superintendent Matt Miller.

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“Technology is here to stay and it is imperative that our students are given the tools to help them succeed after graduation. Combined with the high quality teaching our junior school students already receive, through this pilot they now have a dedicated tool to help them take part in designing their educational experience through personalized learning,” said Miller.

The Chromebooks are not retail-grade laptops but rather specifically designed and restricted to school learning and research features designed to be used only for class work.

Hopewell Junior Principal Jeff Rouff has seen how excited his students were to embrace the pilot project.

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“You can easily find students at lunch, after school in the hallway, or waiting for their ride home, opening up their laptop and getting a head start on their homework. They are accessing new resources that for some students, were not available to them previously,” he said, adding that teachers welcome the upgrade to digital learning.

“They are planning lessons not based on the availability of technology, but instead on what is in the best interest of student learning, and that learning can now happen at any place and any time,” Rouff said.

Unlike Los Angeles Schools’ highly publicized, $1.3 billion failure in 2013 to distribute and control personal digital learning devices to students, Lakota officials said the new program uses state-of-the-art online security and periodic checks to assure students are using their loaned laptops only for learning purposes.

Some other area school districts have also adopted similar digital learning programs — Mason Schools in Warren County was an early pioneer in the region — but Lakota is the first in Butler County to do so on such a large scale.

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According to Lakota officials, the Chromebooks will feature “content filtering” restrictions already used in its schools to keep students from accessing inappropriate internet content. The filtering security will always be operating regardless of where the student’s laptop is being used, officials said.

Moreover, “all internet history is preserved and can be reviewed anytime” by school staffers, said officials.

Of Lakota’s 16,500 students, 18 percent of families are poor enough to be eligible for free and reduced cost school meals.

Such families will be eligible for portable WiFi devices — as supplies last — from the district to access high-speed internet. And families are also eligible for reduced rates for internet access from local cable TV and internet supplier Spectrum, according to Lakota's website with more information on the program.

“The junior school rollout has gone so well that we announced to our staff and families this week that we will launch the high school pilot this coming January,” said Lakota spokeswoman Betsy Fuller.

“Students in grades nine through 11 will receive a district-owned Chromebook at that time. Seniors will continue to use devices at the buildings, as well as being able to continue to bring their own devices to school. This will allow the upperclassmen to have the same educational experience as the underclassmen. We came to this decision based on the short amount of time seniors have left at school and the district’s commitment to long-term financial sustainability,” said Fuller.

District officials said the new program is being paid through its existing permanent improvement fund portion of its general operating budget, but the exact cost of the program was not available Thursday.

Miller said the laptops will empower students but don’t replace quality teaching.

“Our one-to-one technology initiative is offering our students the opportunity to expand their personalized learning and empowering them to take ownership in their education. But technology is an educational tool and should be treated as such. It will never replace the high-quality teaching our staff provides each and every day,” he said.