Five clusters of students huddled at round tables in Melissa Angel’s kindergarten class at St. Patrick’s Catholic School in Arroyo Grande. At one table, a small group clutched pencils and pieces of paper as they concentrated on a math lesson.
Nearby, another group of five students was also testing their math skills — but without the traditional teaching instruments.
Instead, the 5- and 6-year-olds poked at colorful numbers and monkeys dancing on a beach displayed on the glossy screen of Apple’s iPad.
Luke Montoya, 5, moved swiftly through the lessons on a beach-themed application called “Monkey Math,” filling in missing numbers in a list.
“This is the easy one,” he said, sliding his finger across the iPad screen to connect numbers arraigned haphazardly.
After 10 minutes, a bell sounded, signaling to Luke and his classmates that it was time to switch tables and give another group time with the tablets.
The students are the first at St. Patrick’s to have access to the devices as part of a pilot program by the private school to get more, newer technologies into classrooms.
They are also among the first wave of students in San Luis Obispo County who have one-on-one access to a handheld mobile device.
More than 60 students in the Lucia Mar Unified School District recently gained such access to iPod Touches, and students at Paso Robles High School are being encouraged to bring their mobile devices to school — a reverse from earlier policies.
The effectiveness locally of such devices on student performance remains to be seen, and school officials countywide are still working on ways to assess the success of their new programs.
But local educators pointed to several case studies that show one-on-one access to a mobile device improved students’ reading and math skills, reduced disciplinary problems and improved attendance.
Anecdotally, they report that students are more engaged, motivated and excited to use the devices.
“I think it’s a great addition to the classroom,” Angel said. “It’s something they can do independently, and they’re able to practice what they’ve learned in class.”
St. Patrick’s purchased six iPads for about $700 each, including accessories, after the private school’s technology committee researched what type of technology would best suit the 28-student kindergarten class.
The committee is building an assessment plan for the program and will eventually decide what equipment to buy for the upper grade levels. Some classrooms are already equipped with interactive SMART Boards — a combination whiteboard and computer.
School officials also stressed that the devices are just one more tool that teachers can use to enhance learning — not to usurp teaching.
“The human interaction is critical,” said St. Patrick’s Principal Maureen Halderman. “There’s nothing that can replace a teacher.”
However, increased use of technology in the classroom could change the teacher’s role, noted county schools Superintendent Julian Crocker. One possibility is freeing up time that would normally be spent lecturing to focus on more creative, interactive approaches to lessons.
Doing so could help students sharpen their analytical skills, he said. But there should be a balance.
“As with any instructional tool, the key is that it’s an appropriate tool for whatever the lesson is supposed to be about,” he said, “as opposed to letting the tool drive the lesson.”
‘Technology done right’
In a classroom at Oceano Elementary last Wednesday, fourth-grader Samantha Echeverria focused intently on a lesson that combined an iPod Touch, geometry terms and reading comprehension.
Samantha, 9, typed the definition for “angle” into a program on the device and drew the shape onto the screen. Then, she pressed a button to record herself reading the definition and played it back to test her fluency.
“It really helps us,” she said. “We don’t have to use a lot of paper.”
Several other students said they liked being able to use the Internet for research while sitting at their desks.
“If we can’t get to the computer lab, we can get on here,” said 8-year-old Shawn Ruskell.
The Lucia Mar district bought 68 devices with a $30,000 grant from PG&E that is geared toward finding an alternate way to teach language acquisition in lower grades, said Allan Havemose, the South County district’s information and technology director.
A fifth-grade class at Grover Beach Elementary is also using the iPod Touches.
District officials pointed to the positive results reported by the Escondido Union School District, which last fall had 26 classrooms, mostly in elementary grades, using iPod Touches.
Last year, reading test scores of fifth-grade students who were learning English as a second language and classified as high poverty jumped during a six-week period, the North County Times of Escondido reported.
“Technology done right can enhance the curriculum,” said Lucia Mar Superintendent Jim Hogeboom. “It opens up the world in a way a textbook wouldn’t.”
Earlier this year, the Paso Robles school district board approved a new policy: Bring Your Own Device, or BYOD. It allows Paso Robles High students to bring their own devices from home — be it a laptop, iPhone or Amazon Kindle — to use during breaks and eventually in some classes, with teacher approval.
Being able to use their phones on campus has created a “calming effect,” said Principal Randy Nelson, who said he was apprehensive about the policy change at first.
“But now I’m the biggest advocate,” he said.
The high school has been outfitted with wireless Internet access. Students’ online activity is monitored and they are restricted from some sites, said Scott Knuckles, the district’s director of information and technology.
Eventually, he hopes to work with local educational foundations to find ways to make mobile devices affordable for lower-income students.
Other school districts are just starting to experiment with mobile devices in classrooms. A few teachers in the Cayucos Elementary School District routinely use their personal iPads or iPods in the classroom, said district Superintendent Jim Brescia.
District officials are still researching how they want to integrate new technologies into classrooms.
“There’s lots of potential for technology that I see untapped,” he said. “I think any school ignoring technology is going to be foolish, but you can also jump in feet first and not know what you’re doing.”
Reach Cynthia Lambert at 781-7929. Stay updated by following @SouthCountyBeat on Twitter.