ST. PETERSBURG — Ms. Sullivan's fifth-grade class has gone paperless. Or nearly so.
For every little face, there is a little laptop. And for every little laptop, there is a slew of lessons, quizzes and games for students to complete digitally.
"There's so many things we can do," said DeJuan Winfield, 11, as he finished a five-question computer-based quiz on coordinate grids. (He got every question right.)
Rebecca Sullivan got the idea to completely wire her 22-pupil Bear Creek Elementary class last year, inspired by the Pinellas County School District's move to a new real-time student information system accessible by all students, teachers and parents.
"Wouldn't it be nice to give all the kids laptops?" she asked one of her colleagues.
He chuckled at the notion: "Yeah, right."
Sullivan pressed ahead anyway, securing almost $19,000 from the school's business partner, Bill Edwards of Mortgage Investors Corp., to purchase 24 10-inch Dell Latitude 2110 Netbooks and classroom management software.
Now, Sullivan says, the class is the envy of other fifth-graders.
Using their laptops, students stay in daily contact with their e-Pals — students in Slovenia, Spain and France. They log into a free spelling website, Spelling City, to review spelling and vocabulary words. They read passages online and take tests using Scholastic's Reading Counts on the Web. During science and math, they refer to online textbooks and take online quizzes and tests. Videos from Learn360.com give students glimpses of scientific material that help put lessons into context. They even log in to see if they have earned enough good behavior points to merit rewards.
"I think this is the way that education and the world is going," said Sullivan. "You've got to adjust as the times adjust."
From her own laptop, Sullivan can see what every student is doing on his or her screen. She can send them messages and freeze their screens to talk. She also gets testing data immediately and is immediately able to direct students to additional exercises depending on their level of mastery without wasting a night at home grading papers.
For those who fear the classroom is removing important lessons in human interaction, Sullivan has an answer.
Kids aren't allowed to hide behind their computer screens in class all day any more than they might have been allowed to bury their heads under worksheets.
Show up to the classroom at 12:30 p.m., for example, and you'll find the Netbooks stored away, students seated on the floor and Sullivan demonstrating the latest math lesson. She asks questions. They raise their hands. She calls on them and they walk to the front of the class to answer questions on a Smart Board, an electronic, interactive overhead projector that is increasingly sending chalkboards into retirement.
Beyond that, students partner with one another to discuss lesson concepts before returning to their desks, opening up their laptops and doing their individual class work.
Look around the room, and you'll also see good old fashioned hard-bound library books like Wringer stacked on students' desks. Yes, they actually read from regular books for 45 minutes every day.
"I don't want people to think it's computer only," said Sullivan. "But they do have computers at their hand."
In a school where 83 percent of students qualify for free or reduced-priced lunch, Sullivan said she wanted to be sure her class was a cross section of students, in both achievement and socioeconomic status. Three of the students don't have computers at home, but she said they are sailing ahead along side their peers.
To avoid loss or theft, students are not allowed to take the computers home. Funny enough, that means their homework is more often pencil-and-paper based.
Sullivan hasn't yet looked at her students' test data compared with those in other fifth-grade classes to see if the technology is giving them an edge. But she said the students in her class are all showing academic improvement.
Connie Diest, mother of 11-year-old student Sammy, said that while the "paperless" idea sounds novel, it has become "business as usual" for her son.
"His knowledge of technology has just excelled," she said.
And while there is discussion at the school about expanding to other classes, funding is a clear obstacle.
"You wonder with the economy and all the cutbacks that it is even feasible to put something like that in schools," Diest said. "I'm just glad (my son) had the opportunity."
Rebecca Catalanello can be reached at (727) 893-8707 or firstname.lastname@example.org.