LAND O'LAKES — The school year is five weeks old, and Leslie Stanford doesn't have enough textbooks to give to her American history students.
Instead, the veteran Land O'Lakes High teacher has codes for students to gain Internet access to the books. And that's not adequate, Stanford said, as many more students than she expected don't have online access.
"We're setting them up for failure when they don't have those materials," she said. "I'm moving at my same pace. But I'm not sure, when it comes to midterms and end-of-course exams, that each and every student will be fully prepared and equally prepared to be successful."
This year, the Pasco County school district took a new approach to buying high school social studies textbooks. Rather than buy one book for every student, it purchased digital copies of the titles, getting one printed hard copy for every three online codes. That would give teachers classroom sets, but not enough books to send home for studying.
The thought was to accomplish two things at once: save money and increase the district's use of digital materials, said Wendy Spriggs, district director of instructional media.
The first was necessary because of shrinking revenue. The Internet version of the book cost $18 less than the printed one, she said, generating an overall savings of close to $200,000. The second was a nod to the state Legislature's decision that school materials will be primarily digital by 2016.
District officials knew from the outset that some students would not have easy access to the online books, Spriggs said. A state-generated report from 2011 estimated that 63 percent of Pasco students had Internet at home.
That percentage rises to 80 percent for Land O'Lakes High.
Because of that, Spriggs said, the district purchased additional hard copies of the titles for students who needed them. But schools needed to provide specific examples of each hardship case in order to get the books.
No such requests came. But Lynne Webb, president of the United School Employees of Pasco, warned the School Board at an August meeting that textbook problems were brewing.
Robert Marsh, USEP building representative at Land O'Lakes High, raised the issue again on Tuesday. He told the board that, five weeks into the school year, too many students were going without take-home textbooks for studying, and they had a variety of problems using the online editions.
"We don't need a study from the district on this. We don't need to fill out any more requests. We don't need any more bookkeeping type delays in procurement. We simply, desperately need books for all students," he wrote in an email to board chair Joanne Hurley. "The online experiment is not working and is dysfunctional."
Stanford said she sees the problems firsthand with her students, whom she did not want to name in order to keep their personal lives private. One student shared that he is homeless and has no regular access to a computer. Another said her family cannot afford online service.
Even some students with Internet access struggled to use the textbook site, she added. Students with slower dial-up connections had difficulty loading the site, while others had login codes that didn't work.
One teacher she knows, who asked not to be revealed, planned to purchase a set of textbooks at close to $4,000 to guarantee students take-home books.
"In this new age of technology we do have this assumption that it is just so readily available to everyone," Stanford said. "I have had a student say, 'I don't have a computer at home. I didn't know it was a requirement for this class.' ... This has been such an obstacle."
Marsh told the School Board that they are accountable for providing proper materials to all students. He urged them to act quickly.
Hurley said she already has asked superintendent Heather Fiorentino and her staff to look into the situation, which affects Land O'Lakes High and might also be playing itself out at other county high schools. USEP leaders have said the problem is not isolated, but have not shared more details.
"Obviously, Mr. Marsh is bringing us an issue that we need to look at," Hurley said.
She called the district's position a "delicate balancing act." It has to meet the state mandates for going digital, while at the same time meeting the needs of students who aren't yet digital.
"We've got to find an answer," she said, suggesting that state education officials also must work with districts to create a more smooth transition from paper instructional materials to technology.
Leaders from the district and Land O'Lakes High are scheduled to meet next week to discuss getting more books into the hands of students who need them.
Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at [email protected], (813) 909-4614 or on Twitter @jeffsolochek. For more education news visit the Gradebook at tampabay.com/blogs/gradebook.