As experiments go, Clearwater High School's pilot program to put a Kindle e-reader in the hands of every student, with the hope of replacing textbooks entirely, was a bold one.
At stake: Can kids learn as well as they play on digital devices? Will education technology help cash-strapped schools? Are textbooks dead or is this just a blip on a screen?
The jury is still out on whether digital books improve student performance — a semester and a half of grades is not a large enough sample for that.
But six months into an effort that has attracted national attention, students and teachers say the "Kindlezation" of their school has yielded clear benefits — and limitations.
Some classes are book-free, others are still book-bound as publishers scramble to digitize materials. Some teachers have been slow to adopt, others have eagerly embraced it. And even the digital natives — students — are divided, with some using the Kindle more than others.
But one thing was clear in a visit to the school this week: The devices are blending in, being used as often as a pen or pencil.
"I tell my kids, 'You're ahead of the curve right now,' " said social studies teacher Kathy Biddle.
In fact, Florida education officials rolled out a five-year proposal this month that calls for all students in K-12 to use only "electronic materials" delivered by Kindles, iPads and other similar technology by 2015.
"I think it's the way of the future," said Biddle, an educator for 32 years.
She said she has found students pushing her harder to grade tests faster — because as soon as the grades are entered on her computer, students can see the scores on their Kindle, which is connected to the Internet and the school board's servers.
Students said a plus for them has been the ease of studying on the go — hard to do with a hulking textbook.
"I can just easily flip through. Study anywhere," said senior Nikki Hux.
Hux, who is dual-enrolled at St. Petersburg College, said many college-level e-books are less expensive or free, saving her money.
Many other students at the high school have accepted the grayscale-screened device into their menagerie of electronic companions, like yet another cell phone or iPod.
"I think the whole teen population is a digital native," said senior Bennie Niles. "We're used to texting and typing on little keyboards."
And by native, he means native-born. IBM stopped producing typewriters three years before Niles was born.
That many students take notes on the Kindle is something school principal Keith Mastorides said he was surprised by.
"I didn't expect a lot of use from those keyboards," he said.
Mastorides, who invested much of his school's textbook budget into the experiment and has been the driving force behind it, has a lot riding on his brainchild.
The Kindles were assigned at the beginning of fall semester 2010, a world first, according to Kindle manufacturer Amazon.
Money from a downsizing school district has been on the line: 2,200 machines, at $177 each. But the cost is seen as worthwhile if one device is able to help both gifted and struggling students.
Some students have gone so far as to register their own Kindle accounts so they can load non-school books onto their reader (though that disables the Kindle for school material). Officials are working with Amazon to remedy the issue.
John Just, the Pinellas school district technology chief, said about 150, or 7 percent, of the Kindles have needed to be replaced for some reason in the first six months.
Some issues — such as unplugging Kindles too quickly, resulting in a power surge that fries the device, or putting the device near another gadget that de-magnetizes its screen — may be more design flaw than attrition from student abuse.
Protective cases, however, are on the agenda for next year to prevent damage. And theft has not been an issue — with just two devices going MIA early last year.
One pressing student complaint — and concern of administrators — is the relatively small number of traditional textbooks available in a Kindle format.
"It's taken them a little longer," Mastorides said of publishers.
But Amazon, which holds weekly teleconferences with school officials, works with publishers to get more material and streamline the delivery process.
Mastorides said some publishers began work on Kindle versions of textbooks specifically at the request of Clearwater High School.
Senior Shanice Williams said because of her schedule last semester, few of her classes required extensive use of the Kindle because textbooks were only available in hardcopy.
"I'm using it now, surprisingly," Williams said.
Currently about a quarter of the school's curriculum is on the Kindle, mostly in math and English classes.
But as the pilot program winds down this year, Mastorides said that after this summer more titles will likely be available and processes will be streamlined.
With game-changing technology like the iPhone not even four years old, and the iPad not even one, by then, the Kindle's successor at Clearwater High School is still an open question.
Still the experiment has proved to work well enough to continue — as the early adopter that has set the bar for what appears to be a trend shaping learning in the state and beyond.
"I want to stay on this for at least four years. So we can get our money's worth," Mastorides said. "We feel it's had a great start."
Dominick Tao can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 580-2951.