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Clearwater High prepares to hand out Kindle e-readers to its 2,100-plus students

CLEARWATER — Principal Keith Mastorides has entered Daniel Boone territory.

The frontier: technology in classrooms.

The tool: the Amazon Kindle e-book reader.

Clearwater High School's unprecedented plan to arm its 2,100-plus student body with the devices nears fruition, with the Kindles now stacked in a computer lab and each labeled with a student's name.

As the school gets ready to distribute them next week the stakes — and questions — are more real than ever. Amazon confirms no other high school has attempted such a feat.

"I feel like a pioneer walking into a new era," Mastorides said Wednesday. "We're discovering the questions as we go."

But will the questions — like, how long does an e-reader last? Or will students adapt to pushing a button instead of turning a page? — yield answers that will satisfy teachers, students and parents?

The atmosphere at Clearwater High is giddy in anticipation, despite the multitude of unknowns.

"Everyone I've talked to is excited to get one," said Heath Anderson, 17, a senior who helped unpack the Kindles last week. "It's revolutionary really."

School technology coordinator Denise Nye, who said she now uses a Kindle for personal reading, has heard from other eager students.

"They keep coming down at lunch time and ask, 'Can we have it yet?' " Nye said.

But like exploring new frontiers, excitement can go hand in hand with anxiety.

Mastorides hoped to have the e-books in students' hands earlier, but publishers of its English and math textbooks and supplementary science materials are taking longer than planned to load the textbooks onto the Kindles — each one tailored to the individual students' course load.

Once that happens, Mastorides is confident that the device will kindle students' technological tendencies. "The kids, we know, are going to pick this up and run with it," he said. "There's no question about that."

But a pilot program between Amazon and seven universities across the U.S. that ended this summer yielded mixed results that might give unabashed champions of the Kindle's educational utility pause.

The Kindle "is not ready for prime time," Arizona State University professor Ted Humphrey told the Arizona Republic in June.

Amazon spokeswoman Stephanie Mantello said Wednesday that the company received concerns from student feedback about annotating text and font sizes, among other things.

Mastorides, who only recently became aware of the pilot program, said the difference between high school and college is apples and oranges.

"We were looking at the high school level. At the college level, it's a different game," he said. "At the high school level, it's used to enhance the program. At the college level, you're on your own."

When Clearwater's students line up next week to get their personalized e-readers, they'll find electronic texts for English, math, some science and novels, with plans to expand to other subjects next year.

Students can highlight passages and make notes in books — taboo with traditional textbooks. And the school district has designed a mobile version of PCS Portal, the district's site where students and parents can view classes, grades and more.

"It's still a book," Mastorides said. "But it's a book plus!"

And since each device can access the Internet via wireless connections and a 3G cell tower signal, it will bridge the digital divide, providing Web access for students who previously had none at home, he said.

"I do have a lot of kids who do not have Internet access at home. So this is the first time they'll be on a level playing field."

Students can purchase damage and loss insurance for their Kindle for $20. They pay $25 if they lose it once, $50 if they lose it twice.

Lose it three times, though, and a student goes back to the old-fashioned way of reading books, Mastorides said. Or students can still opt for a hardbound text to begin with.

He is now getting inquiries from schools within the area, as well as some beyond, that want to know more about the project.

Tracy Gray, managing director of the American Institute for Research who studies educational innovation, said Clearwater High's endeavor is indeed the first wave of things to come.

"I think it is definitely viable. What we are really coming to understand is how students learn using digital media. The students are digital natives who have been born certainly in the last 15 to 20 years and have grown up with technology and are comfortable with it," Gray said.

While many educational institutions have talked about similar ventures, Clearwater High is the first she knows of to attempt replacing textbooks on a large scale, Gray said.

"I have heard many schools talking about this, but I am not aware of a school that has taken this giant step."

Rebecca Catalanello can be reached at (727) 893-8707 or rcatalanello@sptimes.com. Dominick Tao can be reached at dtao@sptimes.com or (727) 580-2951.

.By the numbers

E-book readers

Number of Kindles at Clearwater High: 2,200

Retail price of Kindle 3: $189

Unit cost to Clearwater High: $177

Number of books stored: up to 3,500

Cost of loss insurance: $20

Clearwater High prepares to hand out Kindle e-readers to its 2,100-plus students 09/08/10 [Last modified: Thursday, September 9, 2010 4:10pm]

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