A United Way of North Central Florida program provided laptops to students in three Alachua County high schools to learn computer software, build online skills and prevent them from dropping out.
Check and Connect, a dropout prevention program in its second year, distributed the laptops to about 70 at-risk students in Gainesville High School, Eastside High School and Hawthorne Middle/High School to help bridge the digital divide faced by students without access to technology at home, said United Way education and school-based coordinator Norinda Yancey.
An at-risk student is defined as a student having issues with tardiness or truancy, unsatisfactory grades or test scores, or a student who is behind in credits, among other issues, Yancey said.
The laptops were made possible through a $20,000 donation from the Dharma Endowment Foundation, she said.
All Florida public schools are required to adopt digital-only textbooks by the 2015-2016 school year and currently must spend at least 50 percent of their budget for textbooks on digital copies, said Jackie Johnson, the public information officer for Alachua County Public Schools.
Students who did not have access to computers at home were at a disadvantage because teachers and schools are putting more resources, assessments and texts online, Yancey said.
The dropout rates for Gainesville, Eastside and Hawthorne High School were about 0.9 percent, one percent and two percent compared to the state dropout rate of 1.9 percent in the 2011-2012 school year, Johnson said.
The Florida Department of Education provides the dropout rate for schools across the state. At Eastside High School, 13 students dropped out out of 1,344 enrolled in grades 9-12 in the 2011-2012 school year. At Gainesville High School, 18 students dropped out from a total of 1,915 students enrolled in grades 9-12. And at Hawthorne Middle/High School, four students dropped out from a total of 199 students in grades 9-12.
The figures for the 2012-2013 school year were not yet available.
The Alachua County Public School System chose these schools using the Check and Connect methodology, Yancey said. Those students needed the laptops more because the area is rural, and the students aren’t exposed to the technology.
In this day and age, having access to computers and other technology were basic tools he noticed his students were lacking last year, said Patrick Wright, the Gainesville High School Check and Connect specialist. He has about 30 students in his program, he said.
The laptops are an asset to his students for them to get comfortable with technology and software so they can be prepared for the next level, whether that means a four-year, two-year or technical school.
“A laptop is no longer a luxury,” he said. “It’s definitely a necessity,”
His students are already using the computers to explore programs like Microsoft Excel and PowerPoint, Wright said.
The 11.5-inch laptops were given to the students for them to borrow. Each laptop came with an antivirus program, Google Chrome, OpenOffice software and other programs coordinators felt the students would need to be more successful in school and later in life, Yancey said.
“We’re taking them from paper and pencil tests to online tests. If it’s not comfortable, they aren’t going to do well,” Yancey said. “We’re trying to get to the point where we can get these kids to make that shift into new technology.”
The students will be able to keep the laptops if they complete educational goals set by their mentors in the program and three projects involving Microsoft Office, PowerPoint and Excel. The students will also learn online and job-based skills, she said.
“We’re not going to buy a truck full of laptops and hand them out in the parking lot,” Yancey said. “So, we had to sort of create a program to ensure we were doing it in the most responsible fashion.”
Students and parents sat down with coordinators before they received the computers to discuss how students would be eligible to keep the laptops and receive training on setting up the computer and online safety, among other skills, she said.
Students who do not achieve the goals set or who are transferred out of the program will have to return the computers, she said.
“We told each student we would be starting from square one with them,” Yancey said. “We are not going to penalize them for past mistakes.”
One issue concerning program coordinators is that not all families have Internet access in their homes. So, while the student will be able to use the laptop at school or in other places with Wi-Fi, he or she would not be able to use it at home.
“We’ve been very conscious of this from the beginning because we don’t want to leave any of them out,” Yancey said. “We can at least say that at the schools this is a tool they can use and in Wi-Fi areas in the community.”