Riminka Jordan always has found a way to get her children access to a computer, but she's never had one at home. Until now.
Jordan picked up a laptop computer last week, courtesy of the Pinellas County school system. Her family, including a 13-year-old at Azalea Middle and a 10-year-old at Gulfport Elementary, will be able to use it until the end of the school year.
Pinellas County Schools is distributing about 4,000 laptops to families with third- and fourth-graders at 36 low-income schools as part of a $4 million initiative to curb the "digital divide" between students who have access to technology at home and those who don't. District officials hope that students will use the computers to play educational games — many of which are used in their classrooms — to keep learning after the last bell rings.
"We are wanting students to extend their learning beyond the four walls of the classroom," said Pat Lusher, who oversees digital learning for the district.
Connect for Success, as the new plan has been dubbed, is part of a broader strategy to provide all students with access to educational programs online. Students district- wide can log onto about nine academic sites with a username and password. The laptops ensure that students who don't have computers at home can keep up. District officials also worked out a deal with Bright House Networks to provide discounted Internet service for families in need.
The laptops, which are being paid for with federal money, also come equipped with Microsoft Office, for use by parents or siblings.
"We're hoping that this is a family project," said Sue Lemire, one of the school district's Title I program specialists.
This is the third major effort by superintendent Mike Grego to effectively extend the school day and school year. This year, he also introduced Summer Bridge, a six-week summer school, and Promise Time, an after-school program at 28 schools, which provides an extra 60 minutes or more of instruction. All three are voluntary for students.
For struggling students to get caught up, they have to do more than a year's worth of learning in a year's time. That's tough if students don't get help outside of the traditional school day.
Lusher said the district can monitor how often students access the websites. They're hoping to see students using the programs on weekends and over holiday breaks.
The district chose to focus on third- and fourth-graders because they are the first to take the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test, Lemire said. The effectiveness of the program will be measured, in part, on FCAT scores.
At Gulfport, the first school to distribute the laptops, more than 100 parents, students and family members came to the training session. Other schools will hand them out during sessions scheduled until Nov. 14.
"This is about fun at home, but it's also about serious academic learning," Grego told a packed cafeteria at Gulfport.
District officials anticipated a 60 percent participation rate at each school, but got nearly 100 percent at Gulfport. Grego said more laptops can be ordered if interest continues to be high.
To take a computer home, parents have to sign a form saying that they agree to pay for the computer if it's stolen, damaged or lost. They also agree not to access "inappropriate" websites; security settings will make that more difficult.
LaShonda Dixon, who was at the session with her son, Alan Stokes, 10, said she doesn't have a computer or Internet access. She said he already knew how to use the laptop and play the games. Alan said he likes one program in particular, ST Math, which features a penguin named JiJi. Students solve math problems to help JiJi get around obstacles.
"Sometimes you'll get it wrong and he'll help you back up," Alan said of JiJi.
District officials say they hope to woo students away from noneducational video games by using fun characters like JiJi and interactive learning games that appeal to a wired generation.
"We're trying to get kids where they like to be," Lusher said.
Jordan, who was there with her children, said she was impressed by the program — although a bit nervous about trusting a 10-year-old with a laptop. But she said students need access to technology more than ever before.
"It's a great opportunity for them to offer something like that," she said.
Cara Fitzpatrick can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8846. Follow @Fitz_ly on Twitter.