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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

A Commitment to Computers: Behind the Scenes at a Laptop School

One-to-one computing works at the New York City's Mott Hall School.
By Edutopia
Edutopia Team

The Mott Hall School has developed a comprehensive plan to guide its implementation of laptop learning.

Credit: Tony Wang

Becoming a laptop school requires much more than simply distributing the high tech tools to teachers and students. It requires a comprehensive plan covering everything from payments to student safety to repairs. It also requires the support and commitment of an entire school community. Here's how it works at The Mott Hall School, a pioneer in laptop learning (featured in our article "Laptops for All").

The Cost

When Mott Hall's first class of fifth graders received laptop computers, families were asked to pay $35 a month as part of a lease-to-buy program. As more classrooms were added, however, the school district modified the payment plan. Now, families "rent" the laptops for a more affordable $10 per month. Students keep the laptops while they attend Mott Hall and then return them to the school upon graduation. The lower monthly cost makes the program more affordable but hasn't changed the feeling of "ownership" students and families have for their high-tech tool. Students are still able -- and encouraged -- to personalize the laptop with their own screen saver or favorite software. Some even put stickers on the top, much like they would decorate their favorite folder.

Repairs and Upgrades

Maintaining 400-plus laptop computers is no small task. Mott Hall has organized a team of student troubleshooters (a 2001 version of the audio/visual crews of years past) who can tackle minor problems, such as software-related glitches or networking problems. Major repairs (paid for by the school district), such as replacing a screen, keyboard, or hard drive, are performed by an off-site repair service.

"It's an imperfect system," says staff professional developer Marc Briller, acknowledging that off-site repairs typically take two or more weeks. Eventually, the school hopes to have its own on-site certified repairperson to minimize repair times. For now, students and teachers adapt to the sometimes lengthy periods without a laptop. Students often work on projects in groups, so each child doesn't need his or her own computer in class. Homework and other assignments are modified when necessary so students don't need a computer to complete them.

A team of Mott Hall students, staff, and parents assists in the considerable job of upgrading software for all 400-plus computers. Particular care is taken to ensure that anti-virus software is kept current.

Student Safety

From the first day of the program, staff and parents were committed to the safety of students as they traveled to and from school with the expensive laptop computers. Principal Mirian Acosta-Sing met with parents and staff and together they brainstormed ways to avert potential problems. "It was a wonderful experience for us," recalls Acosta-Sing, noting that a common concern for student safety "brought everyone together as a community."

The result of those early meetings is a comprehensive Parental Security Agreement, which is reviewed and updated each year. As part of the agreement, parents must designate how their child is getting to and from school each day, taking care to ensure that no student is ever traveling alone. The Mott Hall Security Team (comprised of staff and parent representatives) reviews all parent agreements to ensure the safety of all students.

Most fourth through sixth graders travel to and from school on district-provided school buses. Parents who don't work during those before- and after-school hours escort their own (and neighborhood) children to and from the designated bus stops. A staff person greets the students when the bus arrives at school. Seventh and eighth graders typically take public transportation to and from school. As with the younger students, parents are expected to walk students to the public bus stop and stay with them until the bus arrives. Each morning and afternoon, a volunteer accompanies students on the short walk between the bus stop on Amsterdam Avenue and Mott Hall.

In the five-year history of the program, no Mott Hall student has ever been accosted when carrying his or her laptop to and from school.

Parent Involvement

As with any successful school effort, parents are a vital part of the Mott Hall laptop program. The school has offered computing classes for parents, helping them gain the knowledge and skills required to assist their children at home. With the help of a small grant, several of the more tech-savvy parents participated in a training program during the 2000-2001 school year so they could help facilitate software upgrades.

But laptops alone don't transform student learning. Just as Mott Hall teachers are committed to developing thoughtful curriculum to engage and inspire students at school, parents are dedicated to providing their children with the support, assistance, and encouragement they need at home. Each year, they formalize this commitment in a parent agreement in which they pledge to communicate regularly with their child's teacher and support all aspects of student learning -- from daily reading to regular library visits to completion of all school and home assignments to encouraging and demonstrating respect for school, self, and others.

"Parents are integral partners," says Acosta-Sing. "We're all working together so that the dreams that we have for our children become a reality."

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