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More schools opening door to technology

High school for the Malfi sisters of Burlington Township is the difference between e-mail and a shopping cart. Megan Malfi, a junior at Holy Cross High School in Delran, has her own tablet PC supplied by the school. She e-mails her electronic homework to her teachers' virtual drop-box.

High school for the Malfi sisters of Burlington Township is the difference between e-mail and a shopping cart.

Megan Malfi, a junior at Holy Cross High School in Delran, has her own tablet PC supplied by the school. She e-mails her electronic homework to her teachers' virtual drop-box.

Melissa Malfi graduated from Holy Cross two years ago. There was no portable personal computer for her. She dropped her neatly typed and stapled assignments into the grocery store shopping cart that her history teacher kept parked in the classroom.

"She's pretty jealous," Megan Malfi said of her big sister. "She had to write out her notes longhand. I get to type mine."

In the span of three years, Holy Cross has joined the increasing number of schools in the region that are in the process of supplying all their students with portable computers for use at school and at home.

The programs, called one-to-one initiatives, are the vanguard in technology and education. High schools in Lower and Upper Merion Townships, and Springfield, Delaware County, this fall became part of the growing contingent, which has distributed laptops, netbooks, and tablet PCs.

"It will become even more widespread as computing and computing tools become more ubiquitous and less expensive," said Holly Jobe, an educational consultant affiliated with the Pennsylvania Department of Education. "A computer is a thinking tool. You wouldn't send a student to school without a pen and paper."

Other public schools, such as the High School of the Future in Philadelphia and Chester County's Center for Arts and Technology, Pickering Campus, have had one-to-one programs for several years. Some private and independent schools in the area have used them since the 1990s.

The schools are among about 6,000 in the United States that have implemented the programs, said Thomas Greaves, who conducts a biennial study of technology in education called America's Digital Schools. Some programs restrict usage to school only, but more than half allow students to take home the computers, Greaves said.

Research shows that writing skills improve and math scores appear to go up when students have their own portable computer, said Susan Einhorn, executive director of the Anytime Anywhere Learning Foundation, which works to provide students with portable computers. Students are more engaged and do more schoolwork, and absenteeism goes down, she said.

"If a teacher is interacting with a SMART board, the student can watch that on a laptop and take notes in real time, and then bring that whole visual they had in the classroom home and interact with the lesson they saw in class that day," said Doug Young, spokesman for the Lower Merion School District, whose high school students have Apple MacBooks.

To prepare, schools provide extensive professional development for faculty, who also have their own portable computers. Infrastructure is upgraded to include wireless conductivity, battery-charging stations, communal printing areas, and troubleshooting labs.

Some public school districts in Pennsylvania received a jump-start on the process through their participation in Classrooms for the Future, the now-defunct grant initiative that helped schools update classroom technology.

The result is a cyber environment in which a student can send assignments to virtual drop-off boxes, research online for in-class exercises, use Internet textbooks, and more easily incorporate multimedia into school projects.

For her mythology class, Megan Malfi used her tablet PC to create a commercial for a product associated with Bacchus, the Roman god of wine. Her product: the Bacchanalian Rehabilitation Center.

In Springfield, netbooks come equipped with word processing, graphic organizer, mapping, moviemaking, and sound-editor software. Content filters screen out inappropriate Web content, and one program allows teachers to peek over a student's virtual shoulder.

"It allows teachers to look at what students are doing and make sure Johnny's not shopping when he should be [paying attention]," said Rob Nelson, an instructional technology coach in the district.

In the public schools, funding for one-to-one programs comes from district budgets and, in some cases, grants. Officials in the Upper Merion Area School District, for instance, have allotted $475,000 per year to lease MacBooks for 1,100 high school students and 100 teachers. Families then must pay a $55 insurance fee.

Private, independent, and Catholic schools often include a computer fee as part of tuition. The $460 cost per tablet PC at Holy Cross is rolled into student tuition.

The one-computer-per-student philosophy first gained traction in the United States among private and independent schools in the late 1980s, Greaves said.

Locally, Delaware Valley Friends School, a private school in Paoli for students with learning differences, provided individual students with computers in 1993. Church Farm School in Exton, the Haverford School, and Cardinal O'Hara High in Springfield, Delaware County, started laptop programs in the late 1990s while working with the Anytime Anywhere foundation.

O'Hara ended its program after several years but is considering reinstating it.

At Springside School in Philadelphia, senior Elizabeth Yaffee, 18, says her MacBook has helped her become more organized. "All my documents are in one place," she said.

Her mother, Christy, said the technology must be made available to everyone.

"This is the direction that the world is moving in," said Christy Yaffee, who also teaches at the school. "So let's figure out the best way to let these kids go at it."