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Baldwin Hills students squeal with delight over iPads as LA schools committee considers expansion

Second graders at Baldwin Hills Elementary students react as they get their iPads for the first time on Friday, Nov. 15. Baldwin Hills is the final school to receive iPads as part of LAUSD's pilot program. Maya Sugarman/KPCC

The Los Angeles Unified School District's bond oversight committee is scheduled to vote Wednesday on whether the school system should expand its iPad program by another $135 million — much of which will come from bond funds.

The committee's recommendations will go the school board — which has the ultimate power to decide how to spend the money.

Phase one of the program was wrought with complications and came in millions of dollars over budget.

But none of that mattered to a class of second graders at Baldwin Hills Elementary School, the last to receive iPads as part of the pilot program.

RELATEDDistrict releases iPad budget: costs for IT support, teacher coaches rise

"I couldn’t wait until I got here," said student Amora Hurlston. “I couldn’t sleep!”

On Friday, her teacher, Jacqueline Porter-Morris, rolled the tablets out on a $2,300 cart that looked like a bank vault – heavy, black and clearly theft-proof.  

“It’s like Christmas in November!" Porter-Morris told her squealing class.

“A lot of them don’t actually have technology at home so it’s going to open up a whole new world for them," she said, pulling out the first iPad. Student names are paired with a serial number on the back of each one. The devices come loaded with software.

Porter-Morris said one-to-one iPads are the biggest change she's seen in 22 years of teaching. She hopes it will help with individualized instruction: The software slowing lessons down for those struggling and throwing challenges at students working above grade level. 

That hope remains out of reach for most L.A. Unified classrooms. The software, from textbook-giant Pearson, is not finished yet. 

The pilots’ many debacles made some school board members hesitant about expansion at a meeting last week. After fiery debate, board members such as Tamar Galatzan felt they had to compromise.

Pace slowing

"What we are proposing here is pieces of what everyone cares deeply about so we can move this forward," Galatzan said.

Superintendent John Deasy had originally proposed buying  iPads for all 650,000 students plus staff next year. He slowed down the pace after the program was criticized.

The board voted last week to buy a 70,000 iPads in the second phase, sending them to a few dozen more schools and outfitting every teacher and administrator in the district. That would bring the price tag for the program so far to $200 million. Full rollout is expected to exceed $1 billion.

Because Deasy wants to use bond funds to pay for most of those costs, the proposal must be reviewed by the oversight committee.

The committee has expressed concern in the past on the use of bond funds for tablets. Voters approved the bonds to fix aging campuses and build new schools. In a report, some committee members wondered why existing computer labs couldn't be used for students' new digital standardized tests.

Baldwin Hills’ principal, Leighanne Creary, counters that technology is now an essential part of school buildings.

“People say it’s a pilot, but we are pioneers," Creary said. "I just love being the first, the cutting edge and being a big part of setting the tone for the future.”

Creary said the lessons from the pilot will help the program expand smoothly.

The district has already made changes, increasing iPad support staff, like IT workers and coaches to train teachers on how best to take advantage of the tablets.

"You want to give them some explore time," said one district administrator, Deborah Francois, who coached Baldwin Heights staff when the iPads arrived. "That’s a big key. They need some time to kind of see what’s there.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the name of the elementary school. KPCC regrets the error.