So Akin, superintendent of Piedmont City Schools, summoned a high school student from the audience to help him make his laptop work. The crowd, more than 60 people in their Sunday best, chuckled at the irony of it all.
“Leave it to the adult to mess it up,” Akin said.
If Akin’s flub was funny, it was because laptop computers were the very reason so many people were gathered here. Community and political leaders came to Piedmont Elementary School Tuesday to mark the arrival of hundreds of new Macintosh laptops – part of the school system’s plan to provide a laptop computer for every single student in grades four through 12.
It’s an experiment that has been tried in only a few other Alabama schools, and Piedmont school leaders say the move will almost instantly close the “digital divide” between technology haves and have-nots.
There are a lot of digital have-nots in Piedmont. Roughly 60 percent of the student body is on free or reduced lunch, usually seen as an indicator of poverty. Until recently, wireless broadband –- or broadband of any sort –- was hard to come by. The lack of access led educators to feel their students were missing out on important 21st-century life skills.
Or at least, they were missing those skills last week. This week, 750 middle and high school students began receiving fresh new MacBooks. That’s one computer for about every seven residents of this small town, according to the most recent Census figures. And it’s one computer for almost every family with school-age children.
Those MacBooks came with an $850,000 price tag. The federal government picked up $160,000 of the tab, and the city and Calhoun County are paying off the rest over three years.
“For a number of children, this is going to be the first time they’ve had a computer in the home,” Akin noted.
The first computers arrived Monday, and the initiative has already had an effect on the Piedmont community, both inside and outside the schoolhouse.
“This is going to change the way I teach students in my church,” said Michael Ingram, minister of students at First Baptist Church of Piedmont and member of the city’s school board. “Students today use all five senses to learn, and now that they have computers, it enhances our ability to engage their senses.”
Ingram, who has a child in the school system, said his church has provided him with an HP laptop. But he says he’s “jonesing for a chance at the MacBook.”
He’s not the only grownup who is excited. The community has been gearing up for the arrival of the MacBooks, with restaurants and churches offering wireless hot spots for the first time, or expanding their wireless hours. School libraries are staying open for extended hours, due to anticipated demand for wireless access.
“Today is Christmas in September,” said Piedmont Mayor Brian Young. With boyish excitement, Young talked about the benefits the computers will have not only for students, but for parents who’ve never had a computer in the home.
Parents can take GED lessons online, he said, or go to iTunes U and similar sites for instruction on just about any subject they want to learn.
Of course, just having computers won’t make kids smarter, noted Rena Seals, technology director for the school system.
“You can have all the technology in the world, but if you don’t use it in the right way, it won’t help anybody,” she said.
Seals said she has been instructing teachers on how to make the best use of the laptops. It isn’t like the traditional classroom, she noted.
“When a textbook is printed, the information is already years old,” she said. “With the Internet, there are any number of up-to-the-minute sources.
“The thing we need to teach students,” she continued, “Is how to read carefully and decide which sources are reliable.”
As Akin’s press conference came to an end in the school’s library, fourth- and fifth-grade students at Piedmont Elementary were already putting their computers to use. In one classroom, students used laptop cameras to superimpose images of themselves against different backdrops. In another a teacher walked the room with a portable mouse pad while students read a word processor file about “tornado alley.”
Akin said the next step is to get the broadband access students need to make these computers work. At present, he said, some Piedmont residents have broadband at home, but it will take significant infrastructure improvements to get the entire city fully online.
Akin said the school system expects funds from the federal E-rate program to pay for those improvements.
“What we’ve developed here is good,” he said. “But we need broadband to take it as far as it can go.”
Contact assistant metro editor Tim Lockette at 256-235-3560.