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Levy provides laptops to Spirit Lake students

SPIRIT LAKE, Iowa -- Come August, students in the Spirit Lake Community School District will have a whole lot of laptops -- 1,054 to be exact. But what interests faculty and staff in the district isn't as much the laptops as the academic boost that could come with them.

"We're trying to deliver a 21st century education with 19th century schools," said district Superintendent David Smith. "Our schools were not designed to foster the skills our students need to develop: critical thinking, problem solving."

Last fall, Smith, then at the start of his first year in the district, began digging for answers.

"We spent a bunch of time evaluating road blocks of teaching in our district and spent a lot of time talking with teachers. We figured out that at any one time, only 15 percent of our students could have access to computers," he said.

Smith and other staff began researching and touring districts that utilized the 1:1 program, providing one laptop for each student.

"The bricks and mortar were old and outdated, but it was unbelievable to see what was happening there in terms of teaching and learning," he said of his tours.

They toured schools in the Newell-Fonda Community School District and South Hamilton Community School District in Iowa, and Westside High School in Omaha, Neb.

The four-year lease program will provide all teachers and students in grades 5-12 with their own laptop, and will provide mobile carts of laptops for kindergarten through fourth-graders. Also included in the proposal is purchase of other equipment: special education technology, math calculators and digital cameras, according to the district's Web site.

The program allows for the older students to take the laptops home with them.

"There's about a 40 percent greater educational impact if they're allowed to take laptops with them at all times," explained Smith.

"We think developing those 21st-Century skills is going to change the way we teach and the way kids learn," said Kevin Range, middle school principal. "Instead of becoming consumers of knowledge, they will become producers of knowledge."

The program will also align with state and federal standards for curriculum, Range said.

The $1.75-million initiative was approved by the school board in December and was approved district residents in an 816-638 vote earlier this month. Smith said the levy, called a physical plant and equipment levy, will cost taxpayers $0.65 per $1,000 of assessed property valuation, or about $58 per year for three years on a $200,000 home.

Smith is confident the district will be able to sustain the program for years to come with the use of prioritized spending.