Magazine article Technology & Learning

Tossing out Textbooks: How a Tucson High School Customized Its Curriculum around Its Laptop Program

Magazine article Technology & Learning

Tossing out Textbooks: How a Tucson High School Customized Its Curriculum around Its Laptop Program

Article excerpt


In 2005, Tucson, Arizona's Empire High School made headlines for its decision to forgo textbooks in favor of the digital resources that a wireless one-to-one environment could make possible. Now in its third year, this "inverted" curricular model designed around the laptop program has proven key to innovation and is recognized community-wide as necessary and natural to success.

In early 2004, Matt Federoff, the director of technology for Arizona's growing Vail School District, the district's superintendents, and Cindy Lee, the designated principal of the district's soon-to-be-opened Empire High School, visited four one-to-one programs. Although Empire High School's mission--"to provide teachers with a variety of resources and to prepare students for the real world"--differed from the more traditional goals of the other schools Federoff, Lee. and the superintendents saw one-to-one as key for real-world preparation.

They brainstormed ways they might fund such a program--and more important, exactly how they might utilize it to meet their district-wide goal. They concluded that if they got rid of textbooks and computer labs they would have nearly enough to pay for the laptop program. But, without textbooks, where would the curriculum come from?

Federoff remembers this as a crucial moment. Keeping their goal in mind, they decided to develop a curriculum driven by state standards and to use resources, whether print or digital, that align with those standards.


For Empire, the math worked. Doing away with textbooks saved approximately $500 a student, which left only a $300 discrepancy between that and the $800 laptop price it cost to purchase the computers through the Arizona School Facilities Board. To raise additional funds, the district sold land it owned.

Federoff notes that parent and community support has been central to the program's success. The district has garnered tremendous outside support by actively soliciting parent feedback and participation. Bond override elections have passed at a ratio of four to one. "We don't think we are smarter than our community," he said. "so when we want to do crazy things like throw out our textbooks, our community trusts us to do that."

The Hardware/Software Model

The 737 students who attend Empire are issued Apple iBooks for use in classrooms that feature movable seminar tables, lots of outlets, and a projector to which the laptops can connect. Students are required to purchase laptop insurance from the school for $80. In the case of damage, students are responsible to pay a $100 deductible. The school employs an Apple-certified repair technician and uses the money collected through the self-insurance policy to pay for parts and theft.

Each laptop comes loaded with Microsoft's Office 2004, Apple's iLife '08 (which includes GarageBand, iMovie, iDVD, iWeb, and iPhoto) and iWork '08 (which includes Pages and Keynote), and Adobe's Macromedia Dreamweaver. Students use these programs to do group work and multimedia projects, to take class notes, and to develop presentations. They also use the laptops to retrieve and complete assignments and to send them back to teachers through Pearson's PowerSchool Web-based student information system.


Homegrown Curriculum

Teachers develop curriculum largely through Web sites and free digital resources. "For many of the content areas there is so much free material out there," Lee says. Teachers found themselves often having students work with online primary documents and peer-reviewed sites rather than reading pages in a textbook. …

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