A sophomore at Sammamish High School, Alex Isenhart’s student laptop has helped her in more ways than one.
While she uses it for personal writing — songs, blogging — on top of school work, the tool aids in her focus, as Isenhart has attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.
“Having my laptop and being able to focus on it instead of switching between a textbook and a notebook – because I would lose attention super fast – and being able to have both things on one screen and to see both at the same time … it gives less opportunity for me to be distracted,” Isenhart said. “Having that taken away would, I feel like, impact students with ADHD and students in general a lot because it would cause another track for attention to completely fall off.”
Bellevue voters will have the opportunity to choose whether 11,752 Bellevue School District students, like Isenhart, get funding for student laptops in the upcoming Feb. 13 special election. Three school levies are on the ballot, including a replacement Capital and Technology Levy that would tax property owners 54 cents per $1,000 of assessed valuation in 2019-20 collection years and 53 cents per $1,000 of assessed valuation in 2021-22 collection years. The district would collect $37 million in 2019, $40 million in 2020, $42 million in 2021 and $44 million in 2022. The total amount collected over four years would be $163 million.
About $14 million a year is slotted for technology and $6 million of that funds computers and student laptops. Just more than $2 million is slated for licenses and support, annually. The remaining funds will go toward capital improvements and building maintenance.
However, not everyone is on board with the levy.
David Plummer, a Bellevue resident, said voters should reject the Capital and Tech Levy because costs for technology enhancements “have no credible rationale.”
“These costs could be funded by the state once the Legislature and state Supreme Court agree on a final McCleary resolution,” Plummer wrote in an email.
Last summer, tasked with fully funding basic education via state Supreme Court’s 2012 McCleary decision, the Washington state Legislature hiked property taxes to fund basic education, thus providing more funding to the Bellevue School District and others.
“Regarding the laptops: I believe students can acquire the skills to make use of such devices independent of the public schools, especially in a so-called ‘high-tech’ city like Bellevue,” Plummer said, noting that when he worked at the Boeing Co., the company provided computer training. “… I’d be willing to bet there are plenty of ‘commercial’ training classes available in Bellevue and other nearby communities, such training is probably also available as part of an [on the job training] program by many employers.”
Laptops aren’t included under the umbrella of “basic education.”
But Eric Ferguson, the district’s director of instructional technology, thinks they should be.
“I think that preparing our kids for the world they live and the world we want them to go to, having technology as a tool should be funded for all kids, absolutely,” Ferguson said in an interview.
That “world” is a digital world where students interact with technology on a daily basis outside of school and will, eventually, in the workforce.
Ferguson said the number of people who are applying to the University of Washington for computer science is “just skyrocketing.”
Yet, at the same time, there’s a surplus of computer science-related jobs in the Pacific Northwest, he added.
As computers have increasingly taken over routine tasks humans used to do, educators are putting more of an emphasis on what humans are great at: solving ill-structured problems and communication.
“The technology allows us to communicate and access information we used to not be able to,” Ferguson said. “I’ve talked to students who have been in class, the teacher will be speaking and the teacher will say something that’s pretty intriguing and the kids will be like, ‘Wow, what is that?’”
While the teacher lectures, the student will then Google search more information and ask an informed question, leading to a richer dialogue and more student engagement, Ferguson said.
Geron Lehmer, a senior at Sammamish High School, said he was home schooled before attending high school and having a laptop allowed him to get the one-on-one time with his teachers.
“I didn’t really have much interaction with other people or teachers in general,” Lehmer said of his time being home schooled. “The laptops really helped me with the whole one-on-one-ness because then I got to talk to my teachers personally and get to know them and have them get to know me before really going out and branching out and meeting everyone else.”
Students said collaboration and organization were other benefits of laptops during academia.
“In middle school, I would just lose papers constantly or they would get smooshed to the bottom of my backpack because I’m an extremely disorganized person,” Isenhart said. “But having everything on the laptops and everything there, you don’t really have the opportunity to lose things on a laptop.”
Aron Early, Sammamish High School’s research tech specialist, pointed out the world of difference laptops have made for English Language Learners as well.
“Just last week, I was working with a student who is a very beginning English Language Learner and I was able to sit down with him and, just using Google translate on his computer, we were talking back and forth in a way that we wouldn’t have been able to do without computers,” Early said. “I know ELL students definitely rely on Google to translate a lot in their classes.”
Like Google translate, many of the beneficial services can be found online.
“So why should district taxpayers pay for laptops, especially since many of their parents may already have one, or can afford to purchase one (or more) for their children?” Plummer, the Bellevue resident asked.
Ferguson said it all boils down to one word: Equity.
In a survey, the district found 83-84 percent of Bellevue School District households had a device — whether that be computer, laptop or iPad. And, for a brief moment, they considered a BYOD – Bring Your Own Device – approach.
But then students who didn’t have a device would be supplied one through the district and “that would really be like putting a hat on a student that said, ‘Oh, you’re the student who has the district computer,’” Ferguson said.
Additionally, not everyone had access to internet in the same ways. For example, some households had internet through their smartphone instead of an internet provider.
To combat this issue, the school district invested in Microsoft OneNote, which allows students to have an “offline experience.”
“So, for example, when students are taking a bus for an athletic event from here out to Mount Si, they can access their OneNote and they can be doing homework on the bus ride as they’re going to the game,” Ferguson said. “Or if they live in a house that doesn’t have internet, they can access everything on their OneNote and when they go to school or a place that has internet connectivity, it then syncs up their files.”
And, from a management and support perspective, Ferguson said steamlining student laptops made it easier to address issues in the network and security.
While the school district has been passing capital and technology levies for the past 15-20 years, it’s fairly recent that these levies included one-to-one student laptops.
With a successful spring 2014 pilot and fall 2014 launch, Ferguson said the district was a bit slower to implement laptops in schools compared to its neighboring districts, as Lake Washington School District put laptops in students’ hands in 2012 and Mercer Island gave students iPads in 2013.
Prior to the launch, however, this district put in the infrastructure, such as the fiber that runs to the buildings for wireless and network capability, to make the end goal run smoothly.
“Traditionally, everybody used to have desktops and they’d be plugged into the wall with the Ethernet cables,” Ferguson recalled. “Well, our director of technology Jason Goleck saw the vision of where wireless was going so he started to build an infrastructure of having wireless access for every space of a building and that took many years to get in place.”
During the first pilot, the district learned from students and teachers that they needed a device with a touch screen stylus for classes, such as math and science, in which students draw graphs, diagrams or pictures. That led to the district adopting the Lenovo Yoga.
Not only did students get the laptops but teachers did as well.
Sammamish High School, Highland Middle School and Big Picture were the first three schools to get the laptops with the rest of the schools getting them later.
Ferguson said it caused teachers to rethink how they taught because students could now access materials, such as PowerPoint. While there can be a few challenges, such as technology not working as it’s supposed to, strong filters on websites students need access to, or batteries dying if a student uses the laptop too much during the day, the program has been an overall success.
“We are absolutely trying to do what we think is best for students,” Ferguson said. “And, so, if we didn’t have this money, we would feel like we’re not doing our jobs.”
In addition to the Capital and Tech Levy, the school district will ask voters to approve a replacement Education and Operations Levy, now called the Enrichment Levy, that would collect $304 million over four years and a one-year, $8 million School Bus Levy in February.
For more information on the levies and special election, visit www.kingcounty.gov/elections.