SAN JOSE, Calif. — Before, during and even between classes at Hillbrook School this fall, seventh-graders have been spotted on the Los Gatos, Calif., campus, sometimes burbling Spanish or Mandarin phrases into the glowing screen in their hands, other times staring into it like a looking glass.
iPads — the Apple of almost every adolescent's eye — are being provided to students at several Bay Area public and private schools this year, including Hillbrook, which claims to be the only K-8 school in America using tablet computers in class and sending them home. This has led to a lot of 12-year-olds swanning around the wooded hillside campus, talking to their iPads.
Summoning up a virtual keyboard recently, Sophie Greene quickly typed a note to herself in iCal, a calendar program, then played back an audio file in which she was speaking Spanish. "We record a conversation, e-mail it to our teacher, Senorita Kelly," she explained, "then she critiques the lesson in Spanish and sends that back to us."
For the 28 seventh-graders entrusted with iPads at Hillbrook, the pictures that flash across the device's screen open a window to a wider world. The iPad allows them to take daily excursions across time and space to such exotic ports as ancient Mesopotamia and modern China.
The only drawback is that with their assignments all composed on iPads, the one excuse that no longer works for Hillbrook's seventh-graders is, "The dog ate my homework."
At Archbishop Mitty High School in San Jose — which introduced 32 iPads into the classroom this fall — the devices are used only in class. And Stanford's School of Medicine gave 92 iPads outright to its first-year students this September. At Hillbrook, which received its iPads last summer as a gift from the parents of two students, seventh-graders like Sophie slip the handheld devices into backpacks at the end of the school day. Hillbrook's program has been such a hit that it will be expanded next year to include eighth-graders.
As the high-tech tablets complete the first phase of these academic tests, the future of the iPad as an educational tool is raising questions about whether the most plugged-in technology will be remain the exclusive digital domain of the wealthiest schools.
With studies about the value of computers in the classroom indicating that results are "all over the map," according to one local educator, low-income schools aren't even sure what they might be missing.
"The achievement gap is alive and well," said Judith McGarry, Rocketship Education's director of development. "Private schools and very wealthy public school districts are absolutely going to have all sorts of resources to throw at their kids. We believe that in our society, all children need to be technologically literate."
Rocketship, the award-winning nonprofit charter school network with three San Jose schools, recently declined a donation of iPads from two large Silicon Valley companies, preferring to wait until more textbooks are published digitally.
Woodside High School recently acquired about 25 iPads for Mandarin language classes, but quickly reassigned a handful for Aaron Blanding's special ed classes for students with orthopedic impairments. "It's maybe not as important academically," Blanding said, "but our kids like that when they take them into general education classes, they hear the other kids talking about how cool they are."
Hillbrook English teacher Tom Bonoma hopes he never has to go back to teaching the old way.
"The iPad has really been a game-changer," he said. "It allows us to do a lot of things in real time that weren't possible before." During a class discussion of "A Raisin in the Sun," a play about a struggling black family set in post-war Chicago, students used Animation Creator HDto record their interpretations of a scene. "It puts the sugar in the medicine of taking notes," Bonoma said. "They suddenly look forward to doing that because they get to interact with this gadget."
Apple essentially had cornered the consumer tablet market when administrators at Hillbrook, Mitty, University High School in San Francisco and San Domenico in Marin were considering the iPad last summer as an educational implement.
"It seemed clear to us that it's a revolutionary kind of tool," said Brent Hinrichs, Hillbrook's head of middle school. "It gets everyone involved all the time. That interaction is critical in having them think and experience every moment that they're in the classroom."
Revolutionary or not, using it as an educational tool was so untested that "tech mentor" Elise Marinkovich had to configure the iPads herself. Trying to figure out how to block Facebook, and to install the kid-friendly browser from Mobicip, she made countless visits to the Genius Bar at the Los Gatos Apple store. All the effort paid off.
During a recent Hillbrook history class, students fetched files on the achievements of ancient Mesopotamians, wrote several paragraphs about them on the Pages app, inserted photographs from Geo Photo Explorer, then e-mailed their work to teacher Christina Pak. She projected results onto an interactive "smart board" for discussion. You can almost imagine Elroy Jetson asking her a question by instant message.
So far, only one of the $500 tablets has been damaged badly enough to require repair. "It's an educational tool," said Marinkovich, who was thrilled when head of school Mark Silver decided the kids should be trusted to take their iPads home. "If we just stop it at school, how is that helping them?"
Mitty administrators weren't ready to make that leap, although the school may loosen its policy next year. "The interface is very open and collaborative, and I think it fosters a lot of independent inquiry and research," said Lisa Brunolli, an assistant principal in charge of the school's test program. "But it quickly became frustrating that students couldn't take them home and use them for homework."
Rocketship's schools don't use computers of any kind in the classroom, believing them to be a distraction from "the social learning experience," according to McGarry. But they do promote online literacy with computer labs, and are conducting research of their own on whether computers are a help or a hindrance to learning. "We think they're helping," McGarry says.
Books for the current school year had already been purchased when iPads were added to backpacks at schools where tablets are being tried out. Educators cling to the hope that they will be able to buy selected chapters of textbooks for use on the tablets, the way music fans pick individual songs on iTunes.
That would suit Sophie just fine. "In sixth grade my backpack was 27 pounds," she said. "Ohhhh, my back! It was so sore. This would definitely lighten it. And it would be way more eco-friendly."