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Houston Launches Ambitious 1-to-1 Computing Initiative

Undeterred by the high-profile problems experienced by other large school systems attempting to put digital devices in the hands of their students, the Houston Independent School District began distributing more than 18,000 laptop computers to high school students and staff members this month.

It's the first phase of a multi-year plan that, unlike troubled initiatives elsewhere, will be defined by "realistic expectations" and a cautious implementation plan, said Lenny Schad, the chief technology officer for the 210,000-student district.

 "We are going to have bumps in the road," Schad said in a telephone interview. "But I feel very confident that when those bumps occur, we will be able to react, address the problems, and move on."

The Houston initiative, known as PowerUp, aims to distribute roughly 65,000 laptops—enough for every high school student and high school teacher in the district—by the 2015-16 school year. Eventually, the initiative is expected to cost about $18 million annually; this year, the Houston ISD is dishing out $6 million, all of it existing funds that were reallocated from other sources. The 2013-14 school year is being devoted to a step-by-step pilot program, and Schad—who previously oversaw implementation of a successful "bring your own device" initiative in Texas' 66,000-student Katy Independent School District—said the district is entering the 1-to-1 computing fray with eyes wide open.

"We're really focused on changing instruction," Schad said, "but it's important to appreciate how much of a cultural shift this really is."

Last fall, the 641,000-student Los Angeles Unified School District became the symbol for 1-to-1 initiatives gone awry; almost from its inception, the effort was plagued by security issues, confusion about who is responsible for the tens of thousands of iPads being distributed, criticisms around cost and how the initiative is being financed, and concerns about the readiness and quality of the pre-loaded curriculum meant to become the primary instructional materials for the nation's second-largest district. Following a series of skirmishes with the district's board and teachers' union, Superintendent John Deasy has been forced to slow his ambitious rollout plans.

The 72,500-student Guilford County Schools in North Carolina and the 70,000-student Fort Bend ISD in Texas also ran into high-profile problems with their 1-to-1 initiatives last fall, and the 354,000-student Miami-Dade County school district in Florida "pushed the pause button" on its planned initiative in response to the steady stream of bad news.

In several respects, Houston's PowerUp initiative appears to be the polar opposite of L.A. Unified's Common Core Technology Project:

Laptops Instead of Tablets: Los Angeles officials have taken considerable heat for their decision to purchase iPads for all grades— despite the fact that the devices don't come with keyboards, a requirement for looming online assessments and a component that most experts say is essential for much of the work expected of high school students.  The district has since had to budget tens of millions of dollars to purchase the keyboards separately.

Schad said that as soon as Houston ISD decided last spring it would focus its 1-to-1 initiative on the high school grades, officials eliminated tablets from consideration.

"We knew we wanted to have something that had a keyboard enabled with it, and we knew that for a majority of kids, when they go to college, a laptop is the tool they find most functional," he said.

Houston ISD is leasing HP's 9470m EliteBook under a four-year term that officials say works out to roughly $260 per year, per student.

Plenty of Advance Training: Students at most of the 11 high schools involved in this year's Houston ISD pilot are just receiving their laptops this month, but Schad said the principals and teachers at those schools received their computers in August and have been receiving consistent professional development ever since.  As a baby step to test the district's deployment plans, laptops were distributed to students at three schools in October, and all students have been required to take a digital citizenship class before receiving a computer. And in November, a group of Houston principals and district administrators took an extended field trip to Mooresville, N.C., to observe first hand one of the most acclaimed 1-to-1 initiatives in the country.

This nifty interactive timeline from Houston ISD details the district's cautious step-by-step approach. It stands in sharp contrast to L.A., where a contract with Apple was signed in July, teachers received three days of training in August, and distribution of an initial batch of 37,000 iPads to students began later that month.

Focus on Collaboration and Project-Based Learning: Whereas L.A. Unified elected to purchase a soup-to-nuts digital curriculum from education publishing giant Pearson—one that is still being developed even as it's rolled out, comes at undetermined cost, and to which access will expire at the end of three years—Schad said Houston ISD is focused on providing students and teachers with a suite of "Web 2.0" tools that can foster content creation, collaboration among students, and project-based learning.

"We want to create that space inside a classroom where kids are answering questions inside the same document, posting their own opinions, and creating videos," Schad said. "It's about changing the culture."

Schad acknowledged that will be a "huge" shift for many teachers and said the district has built a professional development plan that acknowledges that reality. The focus is on taking advantage of the enthusiasm and expertise of "early adopters" while making sure everyone gets consistent, content-specific support in how to use the new tools to teach their assigned subjects, he said.

"We'll have some teachers setting the world on fire and immediately leveraging the new tools, some teachers who are just dipping their toes into it, and some teachers teaching the exact same way they've always taught," he said. "In the first year, I'm totally comfortable with that."

Funding Sources: Unlike Los Angeles and other districts that are relying on bond money to pay for technology initiatives—a practice that has generated concern in some quarters—Schad said Houston ISD expects to rely entirely on repurposed savings, operating dollars, and grant funds to pay for its PowerUp intiative. This fiscal year, the district shaved expenses on books and software and repurposed federal Title I and Title II dollars to come up with the needed $6 million. The district's chief financial officer "has an idea where he will get the money from" in future years, Schad said, and it won't be bonds.

Given Houston's glowing self-assessment amid some negative news reports from other districts around the country, it's fair to wonder if Schad's confidence might border on hubris.

But Schad said it's all about having a strong foundation; since Superintendent Terry Grier announced the 1-to-1 plan last spring, Schad said he's had the heads from the district's curriculum, technology, and professional development departments, as well as principals and campus leaders, together at the table, involved in each aspect of the initative.

"Every time one of those [other] districts made the paper, we got questions from the school board and the community," he said. "We were able to come back to them and say, 'Here's what we've done, here's what we're doing, and here's what we're planning to do.' That gave everyone a sense of comfort."

Eighteen more high schools are expected to receive laptops through the PowerUp initiative next year, and 16 additional high schools will join their ranks in 2015-16. 

Follow @BenjaminBHerold and @EdWeekEdTech for the latest news on ed-tech policies, practices, and trends.

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