Ella Hennen rarely opens her English notebook these days. Instead, the Minnetonka High School freshman is using a brand-new iPad to take notes. With it, she digitally highlights passages from "The Hound Of the Baskervilles" for future essays, jots down her thoughts on electronic Post-it Notes, and creates flash cards for French class.

"Everything is just right here in one place," said Hennen, dragging icons across the screen. "Before, there was just a lot to follow and I was not very good at keeping my papers together."

All of Minnetonka's 720 freshmen began using iPads last week as part of an expanded pilot program aimed at bolstering learning and helping students navigate a world defined by evolving technology. In doing so, they join a wave of Minnesota students who are being educated in classrooms that rely less on paper and more on computers.

"As educators we have to keep an eye on what's ahead," said Principal David Adney. "And this is a tool we can give them that can help."

Funded by a technology levy first approved in 2002, the district purchased iPads for half the freshmen earlier this year. Based on early results that indicated Minnetonka students with iPads were earning fewer D's and F's, district officials decided to distribute the devices for the entire freshmen class this semester.

The program's expansion at Minnetonka comes on the heels of Apple Inc.'s recent announcement that it will begin selling electronic versions of several standard textbooks for $15 or less.

"That announcement, for us, couldn't have come at a better time," said Julie Carter, the district's executive director of technology. "It really matched our inkling where Apple and the textbook makers were heading. I think we're just positioned perfect now."

Minnetonka students will be allowed to use iPads for English, math, science and social studies classes. It's up to Minnetonka teachers whether to allow them in other classes.

Less paper, money saved

So far, the program is yielding rave reviews among teachers and students.

"It definitely eliminates a lot of the paperwork I had to keep up with for math class," said freshman Alicia Lhotka. "And I don't think I took any notes in English that wasn't on my iPad."

District officials estimate they will save about $70,000 a year in textbook costs by using iPads, which cost the school about $550 each. And teachers participating in the pilot program last semester estimated that they were saving about one box of paper per quarter.

While students say the computers help them stay better organized and help the environment by cutting paper use, teachers say the iPads help them save time and spot learning problems in real time.

Math teacher Nikki Wiitala described how she saves time grading quizzes and homework assignments by using the iPads. Now, she explained, she can see quiz results as soon as students submit their answers online, giving her the latitude to adjust her lesson plan if needed.

"This is just fantastic," she said as she watched the quiz results materialize on her screen. "What it tells me is whether there are concepts I need to go back and teach."

The iPads have also helped David Surver digitally reach absent students -- and those outside the Minnetonka School District -- via YouTube. The ninth-grade math teacher has the recorded audio of his classes as well as his lessons imprinted on the Smart Board, an interactive whiteboard. The result is an online lesson akin to a webinar.

"I've got messages from kids watching in Kansas who say, 'You did a great job explaining this, dude,'" Surver said.

Facebook: Not allowed

To mitigate parents' concerns that the iPads might be a distraction in the classroom, the district has taken several steps to improve security. For example, students can't access the iTunes store and download apps. Instead, the school must approve all apps. Currently, there are 84 approved apps, the most popular of which are iBooks, Google Earth and PaperPort Notes, school officials say. Several popular time-draining social networking sites are already blocked on the school's Internet.

"In most cases in my class, they (iPads) have not been a distraction," Wiitala said. "Especially when you think of it in terms of the amount of time some students were spending last year looking at cellphones. It was a fear in the beginning, but it's just not been the case."

In fact, administrators say most of the questions they've gotten from parents about the iPads concern what happens if the devices are lost or damaged. (The devices are protected under a warranty the district purchased.)

"I think the telltale sign here is that parents are asking 'When can we get one?' -- not 'When can we give this back?'" Adney said.

Adney and other administrators will continue to track student performance to determine whether to expand the program beyond ninth graders. In April, Minnetonka staffers hope to recommend to the school board whether the program should be expanded to other grades.

As it stands now, freshmen will be required to turn the iPads back to the district at the end of the school year, just like they do textbooks.

That might be a tough sell for Hennen, who admits she enjoys carrying fewer books in her backpack.

"It's just the best," she said.

Kim McGuire • 612-673-4469