WATERLOO -- Central Middle School sixth-graders returned from the media center with a book Monday, but not the sort they're used to checking out.
Chromebook computers are being issued to Central's newest students, part of a pilot program getting underway this fall. Sixth-graders at all four Waterloo Community Schools' middle schools are receiving the devices in the district's first one-to-one computer initiative.
"This week Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, we're in the process of handing out 199 Chromebooks," said Central Principal Alissa Richards, five to 10 students at time. "We want to make sure the librarian has the opportunity to stress to the kids some of the rules and expectations."
Students will be able to use the computers in class and take them home to do school work. At the end of the year, they get returned to the school.
Sierra Moore was among five sixth-graders sent to the media center for their Chromebooks on Monday morning. "I'm excited, because when I do my homework my mom usually has to help me," she said. Now Moore expects to largely look online for those answers.
"I don't have to worry about spelling," noted Gabe Nordman. "I can just look up words on the Chromebook."
Laelanye Outlaw added the computer will make it easier to keep track of assignments that in the past have been completed on paper.
The students met with teacher-librarian Micki Hartwig, who gave each a computer and carrying case. Their names are written on a label on the computer and piece of duct tape stuck to their case they chose from rolls with multiple colors and patterns. "Nothing permanent can go on your bag or your computer," said Hartwig, since the Chromebooks will be returned to the school.
"I think it can take them in a lot more places to extend their learning," said literacy teacher Becky Mohorne, noting homework assignments couldn't be given in the past that would require a computer. Indicating the five students, she added, "These all luckily do, but the majority of our students don't have computers at home."
Teachers had already started working with students on the school's existing Chromebooks to make sure they could operate them and understood how to use various online tools needed in the classroom. Richards noted they were already seeing improvements in teacher feedback on writing assignments through Google documents and students taking more active roles in researching answers to their questions rather than relying on the teacher.
"Teachers are doing a phenomenal job of talking about appropriateness and what they should and shouldn't be doing," she added, noting district filters will block social media applications like Facebook. "We want to keep the focus on what the purpose of the Chromebooks are, and that's learning."
In May, the Board of Education approved the purchase of 900 Chromebooks for district sixth-graders at a cost of $193 each and a similar number of cases for $14 each as part of regular technology upgrades. Typically, the district maintains a ratio of three computers for every one student, but the change was made due to middle school teachers' concern about student access to technology and the pricing available for the Chromebooks.
A number of school systems in the region already have broader one-to-one computer initiatives in place, including Cedar Falls Community Schools and Cedar Valley Catholic Schools. Waterloo is the area's largest school district and has the potential to distribute more computers to students than the others if the effort is eventually expanded.
Matt O'Brien, the district's executive director of technology, said Bunger Middle School and George Washington Carver Academy distributed their Chromebooks last week. Hoover Middle School is also in the midst of its distribution.
He said an agreement with the district that had to be turned in by each family is one reason that "we didn't want to hand them out on Day 1." Hartwig said Central had received 112 of the agreements back so far, just over half.
"It was a sheet that you had to sign and your parents had to sign," said Halli Poock, another one of the Central sixth-graders. "It was like just saying you wouldn't break it."
If a Chromebook is damaged, lost or stolen, families are responsible for the cost. However, they can spend $25 to insure the computer. "The insurance, it takes the price down but you still have to cover it," said Poock.
For families that don't have access to the internet, the district has publicized low-cost services available. It also received a donation of 250 lines of service for four years from Sprint this summer to help with the initiative, a $480,000 value.
The district only needed to purchase the hot spot devices to access it, at an estimated one-time cost of $36,000. Families who receive free and reduced-price lunches are eligible to apply for the hot spots.
Hartwig sees nothing but benefits for the students receiving the Chromebooks.
"I would say the only negative on this is that seventh- and eighth-graders aren't getting them," she said. "So, I've been dealing with quite a few whiners."