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WETA
Rick Lavoie

Happy New Year 2003!

January 2003

Happy New Year!

I hope that this month's column finds you well and that your holiday season was restful and filled with family and friends! And let's all hope that 2003 brings peace and prosperity to us all!

Here's a quiz for you. Since November 1, 2002, I have conducted seminars in the following states:

  • New York
  • Illinois
  • Texas
  • Massachusetts
  • California
  • New Jersey
  • Virginia
  • Minnesota
  • Maine

Which of these states do you think offers the most forward-thinking, creative and effective Educational Technology program to its students? New York? California? New Jersey? Texas?

NOPE! Maine!

That's right. Maine. Under the leadership of outgoing Governor Angus King, the Pine Tree State has developed and implemented the most extensive and effective school-based computer program in the nation. Currently, dozens of other states are examining Maine's innovative approach in hopes of replicating it in their own schools. Although the King's controversial approach was harshly criticized when he proposed it three years ago, it now enjoys near-universal acclaim among Maine's teacher, parents and students.

If you know my work, you realize that I am very "low tech". In fact, I am writing this column on a legal pad with a felt tip pen. I believe that - as Special Educators - we must be "high touch", not "high tech". I have a natural distrust of anyone who promotes computers as "THE answer" to our current educational malaise. But I have been greatly impressed by Governor King's reasoned and rationale approach to Educational Technology.

Last Month, I had an opportunity to learn about Maine's Laptop Program first hand. While speaking at Portland's renowned Spurwink Institute, I had a long lunch with several audience members. Among my lunchmates was Mary Herman, wife and partner of Governor King. Maine's First Lady was a strong and vocal supporter of the Governor's innovative Laptop approach.

Governor King proposed that by 2002, the State of Maine purchase a laptop computer for every child and every teacher in the seventh grade. The computer would - in essence - belong to the child and it would accompany him to the eight grade and throughout his high school career. New laptops would be purchase for the 2002 - 2003 seventh graders. The proposal would ensure that every Maine high school student would have and use a laptop by 2005.

This ambitious proposal received national attention but was not widely embraced. There were tremendous obstacles to be overcome. The cost of the initial purchase was estimated to be a staggering $70 million. There were 250 Maine school building that needed to be wired for Internet access. Policies and procedures had to be designed and implemented…much to do in order to make Governor King's dream a reality.

Fortunately, the project captured the imagination of some folks who could provide significant assistance. The Gates Foundation donated $1 million. The Maine Legislature supported the project…. although not unanimously. Some smart Yankee shopping enabled Maine to purchase the initial 18,000 laptops (',000 for the students; 3000 for the teachers) at $15 million dollars less than retail value. Miraculously, the Governor was able to raise the initial capital outlay for the project.

Another challenge was the "wiring" of Maine's 239 schools that housed seventh graders. One of Maine's great strengths is its geographic diversity. The state features impressive mountains, rich farmlands, craggy seashore, small towns, hamlets and large cities. Some schools were attended by hundreds of seventh graders; one rural school had six kids in that grade. Their solution? Apple assisted the State in establishing wireless systems in each of the schools.

The King Team effectively anticipated all of the obstacles…save two. They discovered a significant need for teacher training. Much of the Gates Foundation monies were used to make every seventh grade teacher in the state computer literate.

A Special Education teacher who I met told me that her husband is assigned to train the teachers in his school in the use of the computer. One particular History Teacher - who was noted for being unbending and unresponsive to the needs of LD kids in her class - had particular difficulty mastering her laptop. "I keep trying and trying but, no matter how hard I try, I just can't get it. Now I know how those LD kids feel!" Love it! Instant F.A.T. City!!

They also created an innovative method to solve their other unanticipated difficulty….laptop maintenance and repair. When a laptop is not functioning properly, it is sent to the Maine Correctional Institute where it is repaired by prisoners who are enrolled in a special technical training program that will provide the inmates with a viable skill when they are released. Everybody wins.

Maine's program does not view the Laptop Project as a cure-all. As Maine's First Lady said, "Computers are merely a tool. But they should not be accessible only to the best and the brightest and the rich. ALL kids should benefit from the Technology that is available." Yes!

Our society doesn't provide our kids with "rites of passages" any more. Eight-year-old girls get their ears pierced. Kids are told the "Santa Secret" at age four. The eight-grade dance features limousines and tuxedos. But in the beautiful State of Maine there is a new - and very positive rite of passage. "I'm in Middle School now…I've got a laptop!"

Way to go, Governor King. Enjoy your retirement. You made a difference.

I had a great month! How about you?

With every good wish,

Rick