Starting her class at a brisk pace, Karen Glasgow gave her seventh-grade students at Osceola Middle School eight minutes to write a blog.
The chatter quickly quieted, replaced by a rush of tapping on laptop keys. Soon, Glasgow called for volunteers to read out their postings.
Charles Burns, 12, shared a fictional account of what he would serve an enemy for dinner, topping off his menu with "manure cakes with regurgitated worms and moose hair."
Doris Gjoka, 12, produced a list of how to annoy one's parents that included making random calls to Canada.
The laptop each student uses has made such quick bursts of creativity possible, teachers say.
And it's all thanks to Pinellas County voters.
"This has definitely been an evolution of the way we teach," said teacher Marcene Juergens. "If not for the referendum money, we don't know what we'd do."
Pinellas school officials say the half-mill tax hike voters approved in 2004 and again in 2008 has helped kick start an ambitious technology program in the district. In the past four years, the district has allocated $7.1 million for technology, money that mostly went toward purchasing equipment and teacher training.
By the time the referendum expires in 2013, the district hopes to equip 1,200 teachers with interactive white boards and set up five podcasting labs in every middle and high school.
"Without (the referendum), we would have never been able to go down that path at the rate that we are going," said Pat Lusher, Pinellas schools' director of academic computing. "The referendum puts hardware in the kids' hands."
About $38 million in referendum dollars was collected last year and most of it — 80 percent — went toward enhancing teacher salaries and benefits. The rest was spent on programs in four areas: reading and language arts, visual arts, music and technology.
Schools used the money to buy everything from high school band uniforms to reading software to guitars.
Referendum dollars also helped lease about 800 laptops, one for each student, at Osceola Middle, according to school officials. The pilot program allows students to work on the laptops during the school day, although they can't take them home.
Academic improvement is difficult to track because of too many variables, said Susan Alvaro, Osceola Middle's assistant principal. But since officials rolled out the program four years ago, attendance rates, discipline and FCAT scores all have improved.
Alvaro and teachers at Osceola credit the interactive capabilities the laptops bring to classrooms.
"They are learning so much more, and so much faster. They are achieving more than just paper and pencil and turning textbook pages," said teacher Donna Johnson. "This is their life, this is their future."
The laptop leases will expire over the next two years, so school officials plan to replace them with smaller netbooks — half the price of laptops. By trading in the older laptops and using regular school funding, the "school is sustaining the program. There is no need for referendum funds," Lusher said.
Although the laptop program has been well-received, it is being phased out. Replicating it in all schools would not be feasible because of the technical and financial resources it would take, according to a district report.
But district officials said they learned how to develop models to implement technology in schools.
"We wanted to see how we could create and build a model and drop it off at a school, and what kind of process or resources we would need," Lusher said. "The referendum allowed us to build a budget and provide professional development for teachers ."
While district officials work on the next technology initiative —smartboards for classrooms — Osceola Middle students get to continue exploring with their laptops.
Having the laptops doesn't exempt students from reading textbooks. Amanda Taylor, 12, had to study for a geography test from one. But her tests are administered through the computers.
"If I don't finish it, I can save it before submitting it and take it tomorrow," said the sixth-grader. The test "is based on the book."
After she and her classmates finished their tests, many spent the remaining minutes before class ended surfing the Internet.
Brett Lounsbury, 12, piloted a simulated flight on Google Earth. Done with zipping through the world, he looked up satellite images of his home.
|Referendum dollar allocations (in millions of dollars)|