Western Mass. Initiates Wireless Learning

There’s a saying in politics: “As Maine goes, so goes the nation.” It began in the thirties, when Maine’s general election took place in September instead of in November. Nowadays, Maine votes with everyone else on the first Tuesday in November, but the state still leads the way in some areas, including putting technology into classrooms.

Four years ago, then-governor Angus King announced that he would use the state’s budget surplus to fund a new initiative which would place a laptop in the hands of every seventh grader in the entire state. The success of that program has inspired nearly 1,000 similar programs in various cities and counties around the country, the most recent of which is just getting underway in Berkshire County in Western Massachusetts.

The Berkshire Wireless Learning Initiative will provide Wi-Fi-enabled Apple laptops for 2,200 middle schoolers and more than 200 teachers in the towns of Pittsfield and North Adams. Broadband wireless networks will be created in four school buildings, and plans are in the works to create hotspots in the towns’ libraries and YMCAs.

Jim Stakenas, co-chair of the Steering Committee that oversees the Berkshire Initiative and vice president of administration and finance at the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts, which will be conducting the professional development for teachers, says, “The laptops are for keeps for the duration of the program, so the incoming seventh graders will keep them until the end of eighth grade, then they’ll return the laptop back to the program.” The value of the 1:1 (kids to computers) ratio has been clearly proven in the Maine experiment, particularly for this age group.

“We really need to grab students as they leave sixth and seventh grades,” says Mike Supranowicz, co-chair of the Steering Committee. “We lose more students after that than any other time. By going after the middle school students, we are hopeful to keep them in school longer. The laptops generate so much excitement. The kids work well with each other more. And the laptops level the playing field for the haves and have-nots, so kids who can’t afford even clothes and regular school supplies will still be able to have everything.”

The first laptops are expected to be distributed to teachers this spring, and to seventh graders this fall. The program will be rolled out over the course of three years by local company Berkshire Connect, which in itself has been a groundbreaking entity. The Pittsfield-based group was created several years ago as a means of lowering high-speed Internet access charges by creating competition through aggregate buying. Berkshire Connect’s methods have been recognized at the state and national level as a compelling new model. The group will lend its expertise and buying power to the Learning Initiative.

The decision to go wireless was simple. They did it for the kids.

“Can you imagine an energetic classroom of sixth graders with Ethernet cables strung all over the place?” asks Stakenas. “Wireless makes complete sense. We also don’t want the kids tethered. We want teachers to be able to send a group of kids to work in the gym, the hallway, or the cafeteria. We’re also looking at outside the school and the school day. Wireless just makes more sense.”

Although $2 million in state funding for the program was initially vetoed by Republican governor Mitt Romney, the Massachusetts legislature overrode the veto by a strong majority last year, restoring the funding and giving the project an official green light. The state funds will be matched dollar-for-dollar by Berkshire County businesses, and by the school systems being served.

“Basically, it’s a three-way split,” says Supranowicz, “A third from the state, a third from the schools, and a third from the business community.”

Stakenas says the total cost of the project will include just over a million dollars in personnel at the schools, including integration specialists and technicians. Several large local corporations have already made large cash contributions to the project, and its organizers are optimistic about meeting their funding requirements.

In addition to the educational benefits for students, the project’s planners believe it will be an eventual economic boon for the entire county. Supranowicz, who is also vice president and COO of the Berkshire Chamber of Commerce, says that good schools are good for business.

“We’ve endorsed the project from the beginning,” says Supranowicz. “It will contribute to the overall economic development of Berkshire County. It puts our schools one step above. It’s very hard to bring new businesses to the area. Businesses need to bring qualified employees who want affordability and quality of life. The school systems are a big factor, and will put us one leg up on the competition.”

If the project meets with success, the old adage about Maine leading the nation will prove in this case to be true. The Berkshire Initiative is being used as a testing ground for possible future statewide programs like the one still running in Maine where, to date, more than 40,000 laptop computers have been given to students.

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