Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Laptops distributed to Farmington middle schoolers

By G. Jeff Golden / Farmington (NM) Daily Times

Hundreds of middle school students and their parents crowded into Piedra Vista High School on Monday afternoon to receive free laptops, courtesy of Farmington Municipal Schools.

This is the first year the Farmington Learning Initiative, an ambitious program that provides Apple MacBooks for all district middle school students, is being instituted.

The computers are being distributed from 4-7 p.m. every evening through Thursday. Each Farmington middle school has its own scheduled day. Students from Hermosa received their laptops Monday, while Mesa View goes today, Heights on Wednesday and Tibbett's on Thursday.

Most of the Hermosa students visibly were excited Monday, incessantly fidgeting with the laptop carrying cases they were presented prior to an hour-long orientation presentation. They couldn't put their hands on their precious new possessions until after the speech, which detailed how the computer operates, standard maintenance and the liability of all parties involved.

"It's awesome," Alvin Begay, a Hermosa student, succintly said.

"I think it's really cool," echoed fellow student Mikayla Valdez.

The Apple MacBooks come equipped with a 160 gigabyte hard drive, 2 gigabytes of RAM, a wireless internet adapter and a built-in camera. There are many programs pre-installed, all educational, from internet browsers to e-mail applications to multimedia software.

Students can't delete or install any software.

Though the students were teeming with delight, some parents had concerns.

"At first I was kind of scared. I like it, I was just worried about the security. But I think it's going to be a good thing," said parent Irene Salazar, mother of rising eight-grader Nicholas Salazar. "It'll also teach them some responsibility."

Robert Emerson, assistant superintendent of technology, assessment and accountability, and Charles Thacker, chief technology officer, spearheaded the initiative and were the speakers during the orientation sessions. They are making security a priority.

Every laptop has a StopTheft tag and an electronic tracking system. The StopTheft tag is glued on to the computer and leaves a tattoo identifying the item as stolen if removed. And only Farmington Municipal Schools students can log-in to access the computers. Thieves would not be able to use, conceal or sell a stolen MacBook.

"We are working to create a system where these laptops become paper weights if stolen," Thacker said.

Another chief concern was students' Internet accessibility. Rather than give middle schoolers free reign over their travels on the Internet, or restricting them completely, the laptops use content filters. Farmington Municipal Schools gets federal funding as a reward for installing content filters. The blocks will be in place no matter where the student accesses the Internet, whether it's at school or in New York City.

"No content filter is perfect...we adjust as much as we can," Thacker said.

Laptops damaged or lost on a school campus are paid for completely by the school district; those lost or damaged at home can only result in a maximum penalty of $100 to the parents.

Students are expected to bring their laptops to school, fully charged, every day. As more textbooks are published online, print editions will be weeded out.

Members of the Student Technology Assistant Team will be available 30 minutes prior to school and 30 minutes after the final bell rings, as well as during school hours, to solve any issues.

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