HOLIDAY — Some kids cheered. Others actually trembled a bit.
"It was love at first sight," fifth-grader David Bayliss admitted with a grin.
What had them so excited?
MacBook laptops. One for each of them to use all day, every day, in their Gulf Trace Elementary School classrooms.
"I love getting a computer," fourth- grader Autumn Baker said during a break from learning where to place her fingers on the keyboard. "It's like a dream come true, especially that we can do it in class. I can do what my mom and dad do all the time."
That's kind of what principal Hope Schooler had in mind.
People at work, and in college, conduct research, prepare presentations and communicate in a high-tech environment that often places them in front of computers for long stretches, Schooler said. It makes sense, then, for schools to teach students how to use the technology appropriately.
"We need to focus on students as 21st century learners," she said.
In most instances, money would have proven a stumbling block. As a district, Pasco County still has a goal to get to one computer for every three students within the next three years. Most schools have mobile labs to give students occasional one-to-one computing experiences, but few have taken the steps that Gulf Trace has made.
The difference has been money.
Gulf Trace, which is still growing, had some equipment funds left over from when it first opened three years ago. So it was able to afford laptops for two classes of 25 students each. Getting into those classes was simply luck of the draw.
The students started small last week, working on keyboarding skills and doing some basic math problems.
Easier and more fun
Before long, they'll be making podcasts, PowerPoint reports, movies and more. They'll have access to the computers to research questions during class, and they'll be allowed to take them home to work on projects begun in school.
"We're trying to take their learning one step, two steps, five steps beyond," said teacher Sandra Rivera. "This is a beautiful way to learn. The same technology they use to play games at home, they're going to use it to learn."
Teacher Carol Dintino shared the enthusiasm.
"It adds to everything," Dintino said, as she gave her students the chance to tap away at the keys to play a computer drum set before shutting the laptops down. "I was hogging the computer lab last year, just trying to get the kids in there as much as I could. They just knocked my socks off with what they could do."
One of those students was fifth-grader Julia Beckman. Last year, Julia researched three projects online and made all three reports with PowerPoint, presenting them to her classmates on a Smart Board.
"If we need help with a math question, Mrs. Dintino will say, 'Pull out your laptop,' and we could search," Julia said. "It's not just available to us for just a little bit at a time. It's available to us for the whole six hours of school. It gives us more time to search and find things for what we need to do."
And that, fourth-grader Gregory Hample said, "is just amazing."
Computers make learning easier, he acknowledged. But just as important, Gregory added, "It's going to make it more fun."
That has sold Rebecca Peppe on the effort. Peppe's daughter, Savannah, is in Rivera's class. And every time the fourth-grader brings home a computer-oriented assignment, her mom said, she can't wait to do it.
"I think it's her preferred way of learning," said Peppe, who hopes to learn more about computers herself through the pilot project.
That doesn't mean that every lesson will be on the computer.
After practicing keyboarding for about 30 minutes on Thursday, Rivera's class packed the MacBooks into a charging dock and headed to the school science lab for a lesson on solutions and mixtures. They stirred salt, sugar, sand and baking soda into cups of water to see how each would react — something that just wouldn't have worked as well on a monitor with a mouse.
"I am teaching. It's not the whole entire day in front of the screen," Rivera said. "It is another tool that we have."
One that Schooler hopes will make a big difference in the way children learn, think and achieve. At the end of the year, she plans to collect data on how the students in these two classes performed academically compared with their peers who did not have as much access to computers.
If the initiative proves successful, Schooler said, she hopes to add even more computers to Gulf Trace Elementary next year, if she can find more money to make it happen.
Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 909-4614. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at blogs.tampabay.com/schools.