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Kindle e-readers have had big impact at Clearwater High

CLEARWATER — One call came from St. Petersburg, Russia.

Across the world, a librarian asked: How did you like going digital?

Clearwater High School principal Keith Mastorides gave his usual response: "It's been a great success!"

Since Clearwater High largely swapped textbooks for Kindle e-readers three years ago, becoming the first school in Pinellas County to do so, teachers in Florida, Minnesota, Kentucky — the list is long and growing — have called for advice.

Clearwater High, in this way, has become an informal Kindle ambassador.

Some parents initially questioned the school's decision to dole out smart devices to about 1,200 students: Won't this be expensive? What if students break or lose or steal them?

Now, after six digital semesters, feedback is overwhelmingly positive, Mastorides said. The gradual shift from paper went smoothly.

"Students have embraced it, teachers have embraced it," he said. "We're growing and adapting with the rest of the world."

An Amazon representative reached by email wouldn't disclose how many U.S. schools use or want to use the Kindle e-book programs. But the education tool is evolving and adapting to school needs: An intranet feature called Whispercast, which enables teachers to centrally manage lesson plans, was released in October.

Though the Kindles are just "one tool in the tool belt," Mastorides said — the school also recently started a reading initiative, which paired struggling students with specially certified teachers — FCAT reading scores jumped 18 percent the first year of Kindle use and 14 percent the second year.

"The technology levels the playing field for students who don't have Internet access at home," he said. "And that is so important today."

During third-period English on a school day before the holidays, senior Virginia Metzler scrolled through The Marvelous Land of Oz on her Kindle.

Metzler, who doesn't own a cellphone or iPad or laptop, considers the device a luxury: text written a century before she was born and, simultaneously, instant access to Dictionary.com.

"The Kindle is like my baby, really," she said. "I don't go anywhere without it."

It serves as her textbooks, day planner and portal to homework assignments.

"And unlike my other stuff," she said, "I don't lose it in the tornado of my bedroom."

The basic Kindles cost about $70 — significantly less than a stack of textbooks — and are loaded with free 3G networks.

Only one student and one teacher have reported a stolen device since the school started using them.

The Pinellas County School District has no current plans to push other high schools toward digital textbooks, according to district spokeswoman Melanie Marquez.

But a Florida state statute will require school districts to use 50 percent of their annual state instructional materials allocation for digital or electronic state-adopted materials by the 2015-16 school year.

Schools in Dunedin, Tampa, Orlando and Sarasota are already moving to meet that requirement, incorporating e-readers, tablets, smartphones and laptops into classrooms and libraries.

Mastorides said principals and teachers across Pinellas and Hillsborough counties — "too many to list" — regularly contact him.

This year, Clearwater High allowed students to bring their own e-readers compatible with the school's Amazon program. Julianna Stoaks, a sophomore, studies with her pink-plated Kindle Fire HD. She can play Scrabble and fact-check lecturing teachers.

"I probably spend eight hours a day on it," she said.

Economics teacher Joel Melvin, who still assigns textbooks to his students because his subject isn't yet available online, uses Kindles in his classroom for activities to promote critical thinking. During the presidential election, he instructed students to pair off, research their chosen candidates and build a case to defend them in a debate.

"The devices open so many doors for us beyond the textbooks," Melvin said. "These kids live on technology, so it comes naturally."

Times researchers John Martin and Caryn Baird contributed to this story. Danielle Paquette can be reached at dpaquette@tampabay.com or (727) 445-4224.

Kindle e-readers have had big impact at Clearwater High 01/05/13 [Last modified: Saturday, January 5, 2013 8:26pm]
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