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updated: Apr 12, 2014, 2:00 PM

About 26 percent of the students at La Cuesta do not have Internet access at home. (Alex Kacik)

By Joshua Molina

[This is the first story of a series on how California Common Core standards affect Santa Barbara Unified School District students.]

It's a typical Thursday at La Cuesta High School, except that on this day students are huddled with their parents at tables in the Santa Barbara Unified School District boardroom on Santa Barbara Street. At the head of the room, the district's IT specialist Javier Ledesma walks the students and their families through a step-by-step process: Choose English, U.S. Choose WiFi.

Then the words pop up on the big screen: "Welcome to iPad."

For some of the La Cuesta students and parents in the room, a continuation school for 11th and 12th graders, it's the first time they have seen such a greeting, and the first time they have held Apple's revolutionary device. But they are about to become familiar with how the popular tablet works. As part of California's jump into the new controversial California Common Core standards, hundreds of Santa Barbara Unified School District students are receiving iPad Airs to use in the classroom and at home. La Cuesta was the first school to receive the devices, followed by three others in April.

The district spent $700,000 of Common Core funding last year for 1,200 iPads, black cases and Apple Care insurance as part of a pilot program for students at four high schools: Franklin, Adams, Washington and La Cuesta. Adams received their iPads this week and Washington and Franklin are next.

"Our main goal is to bridge the digital divide," said Todd Ryckman, the district's technology director. "With an iPad, every classroom is a computer lab."

Santa Barbara is just one of the districts working to implement California Common Core standards, a dramatic change in how students learn. The math and language arts standards move beyond memorization and the standardized test. Common Core applies practical skills and critical thinking to prepare students for college, the workforce and competition in the global economy.

The iPads will be a tool for students as they prepare for next year's Common Core online testing. If the pilot program is successful, the district will give the iPad Airs to every student in the district over the next few years. The district plans to hire an outside evaluator to determine the effectiveness of the program; the first report is expected to be out in one year.

The pilot program, for students in grades three through six and 11th and 12th at La Cuesta, signals one of the district's big steps toward the new standards adopted by the state of California to improve math and English comprehension. Since 2010, 45 states have adopted Common Core standards.

La Cuesta junior Jamie Velasco shows her mom Jacqueline Aguiore how to use the tablet. (Alex Kacik)

La Cuesta, where more than three out of four students qualify for free or reduced meals (families of four that make $30,615 or less a year), was the first school to receive the iPads. Adams Elementary School received them this week, followed by Washington and then Franklin elementary schools later in April.

But board members, parents and some teachers have raised prickly questions about whether the district is prepared for the arrival of the iPads and if they will be used effectively in the classroom-and at home. The debate reflects the deep uncertainty about the ways and means of bridging the digital divide that schools throughout the state are wrestling with.

Teachers have spent generations teaching out of a textbook, but the iPad, along with its wide world of apps and Internet possibilities, is alive with potential-and pitfalls.

District administrators and board members don't know how long the pilot program will last, and have not identified all the performance measurements that would indicate when the district should expand out to the other schools.

The point of the pilot program, they say, is to see it unfold in real time before moving ahead. The district is considering a multimillion-dollar investment to put iPads in the hands of every student.

"The board, in general, is open-minded about the iPads, but skeptical," said Santa Barbara School Board President Kate Parker. "I want to see if this is the best way to spend our money. It can't be about test results. I am looking at this with curiosity, not excitement."

In addition to implementing iPads in the classroom, the district is grappling with whether to allow students and their families to purchase the iPads.

In what hits at the heart of the digital divide debate in education over what schools should and can do to help students who don't have computers at home succeed, many of the poorer students who don't have iPads at home want to purchase the iPads from the district over a three-year financing plan with a 1.7 percent interest rate, for about $20 a month.

"I don't understand why anyone would chose to lease/own rather than take the district-provided option," Heron said. "In the future owning a three-year-old iPad in today's technology ever-changing environment, in my mind, is not a good choice, especially considering at the time other students potentially will be receiving the current new ones. It also just seems strange to me offering district-owned equipment to the advantaged while creating an environment that encourages lease-to-own for the (lower-income) families."

Heron said three years from now the devices could be obsolete: Anyone who is technologically oriented would not do it," he said.

Heron said the District stands to earn back money by selling the iPads.

"I don't want to create an environment where we are endorsing pay-to-own," Heron said. The families at Washington Elementary School, however, have showed significantly less interest in buying the iPads from the district, largely because administrators believe seemingly because those families already have iPads at home.

Should the district's poorer kids be subsidizing the Common Core iPad program?

Raul Hernandez and his mom Josefina plan to pay $20 a month over three years to eventually own the iPad. (Alex Kacik)

When Raul Hernandez left Santa Barbara High School a year ago, he was getting Fs. He says he was distracted by 35 other students in the classroom.

Raul now goes to La Cuesta where the class sizes are half as big, are more collaborative and the teachers all know his name.

Hernandez was happy to pick up his iPad last Thursday. But his mother Josefina seemed even more thrilled. The two sat through an hour-long training on Thursday at the district's headquarters.

"I want to learn to use it," said Josefina Hernandez, clutching the device like a schoolgirl holding a textbook. "I need to learn everything about this. This is something new. I have never tried it." Raul said he believes the device will help him excel academically.

"It's a lot faster than using a regular computer," Raul said. "I will be able to check in on my homework assignments and do research for my papers."

The family plans to buy the iPad. For those who want to purchase the devices, the district has set up a financing plan, where families can purchase the iPads for about $20 a month, over three years.

So far, 87 percent students at Franklin, 83 percent of students at La Cuesta and 80 percent of students at Adams have said they would like to pay-to-own their devices. At Washington Elementary School, only 29 percent of the students' families said they would like to purchase the iPad.

"I don't like the idea that the poor pay more," said board member Monique Limon, "but I am aware that for some of the families there's value in making that investment."

If the iPad gets stolen, once the families notify the district, the device will be locked so no one else can use it. Apple will replace or repair the iPads for $49, twice.

More than a third of the students at Franklin Elementary don't have Internet access at home. (Santa Barbara Unified School District)

Around 71 percent of Washington students preferred to either bring their own iPads or use a district- provided one, whereas only 13 percent of Franklin students, 17 percent of La Cuesta students and 20 percent of Adams students preferred those methods.

"That's something Apple has said it has noticed nationally," Ryckman said. "Kids in the wealthier areas tend not to invest, whereas the kids in the lower socio-economic areas tend to want those educational opportunities."

From "phonics to physics," and more than 65,000 education Apps, Apple boasts of the educational value the iPads bring. The company says the devices create customized learning opportunities and open doors to "a universe of apps and content make for endless learning possibilities."

Excerpt provided by Mission And State. Read the full article at MissionAndState.org


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