To get a sense of the iPad's potential to change teaching and learning in the St. Paul School District, just walk the halls of Mississippi Creative Arts School on the city's North End.
Outside a classroom recently, four fifth-graders sat on a hallway floor using an iPad to record themselves in a book club conversation that they and their teacher could review later to gauge their understanding of the material.
The teacher, Susan Kreidler, a 21-year veteran, "wasn't so sure" of her district's all-in embrace of the device as a means to enhance learning. But kids are inspired, reading levels are up and, Kreidler said, "I'm on board."
So goes Year One of St. Paul's two-year plan to provide iPads to every one of its 38,000 students — the largest 1:1 initiative in the state. For teachers, it has been a year of exploration, and those deeply engaged in the rollout say many students, including those in English language learning and special-education programs, have been excited to find new ways to express themselves and their learning.
"There is power in a child saying, 'Look what I did,'" Be Vang, principal of Mississippi Creative Arts, said.
What's not known is how many teachers and students are putting the devices to their more intensive, creative uses. The district is not tallying how they're being used and where. Teachers were free to integrate the technology to the extent they were comfortable, Kate Wilcox-Harris, assistant superintendent of personalized learning, said last week.
The initiative, budgeted at $11 million for the 2014-15 school year, was announced just a year ago, with the devices rolled out school-by-school beginning in early October. At first, there were network capacity issues, since resolved, and to some parents, a slow start to the unfolding of meaningful iPad-ready curriculum.
Other parents fretted that a student's freedom to explore also meant he or she was free to find trouble.
At Parkway Montessori & Community Middle School, the site of the district's first handouts on Oct. 7, Bruce Pettis, the father of an eighth-grader, said his son spent too much time with non-school-related video chats, and that when he began staying up until 2 or 3 a.m., it was decided it was best to leave the iPad at school.
"If he's going to screw around on it, it's not helping him — and it's a major distraction, too," Pettis said last week.
St. Paul turned to Apple Inc. last summer after initial plans for a Facebook-like Web page through which students and teachers could interact was deemed unworkable. It leases the iPads through a $9-million-a-year technology levy approved by voters in November 2012.
The district's goal has been to use technology to tailor instruction to each child, from those who struggle to those who seek greater challenges.
Roshan Anglin, a ninth-grade algebra teacher at Washington Technology Magnet School, a grades 6-12 school on the city's North End, showed the benefits of the iPad through a "flipped" teaching lesson that involved the pictorial display of data along a horizontal number line.
Using their iPads, the students first watched a video presentation at home and then dug deeper into the work while in class the next day. To gauge where students were in understanding the subject, Anglin had them work through an exercise on their iPads that placed them at varying points on a 1-to-100 scale — results she could monitor live on her device. Side by side in the classroom's second row were a pair of students with a 10 and a 96, respectively. Anglin, in turn, knew who needed more help.
In the back of the room working together quietly were four students who mastered the lesson. One, Kalen Olive, 15, said he didn't need Internet access to watch Anglin's presentation at home. He could download the lesson on his iPad during the day for viewing later.
Karen Randall, assistant director of the district's Office of Personalized Learning, declined to estimate what percentage of classrooms across the district might employ a flipped-lesson approach. What is important, she said, is that "they all have the capacity to do it."
Last summer, two school board members, Louise Seeba and John Brodrick, voted against the iPad initiative, with Seeba objecting to the tight 28-day time frame within which the board had to switch gears on the technology plan.
This year, at the city DFL convention, school board challenger Steve Marchese, an attorney who went on to win endorsement as part of a "Caucus for Change" movement critical of top down, one-size-fits-all management moves, cited the initiative as an example of the district enacting a major policy change without an adequate implementation plan.
Still, he acknowledged, "there's opportunity here."
Seeba said that she has yet to see anything in the iPad initiative that would have changed her vote.
"I don't want my child to graduate from St. Paul Public Schools knowing how to do a PowerPoint," said Seeba, who values critical thinking skills. "It's bigger than that."
Recent surveys have shown that a majority of St. Paul students have felt empowered by the technology, with about 80 percent saying that they could decide what and how they learned.
Students appear to have been taking care of district property, too. Less than 3 percent of the iPads — 582 of the 26,477 thus far distributed — have been lost, stolen or damaged, the district says. Year One students now are in the process of returning the devices to their schools, and will receive them again in September.
In 2014-15, students in grades 6-12 were allowed to use their iPads at home, meaning Mississippi Creative Arts elementary students had to leave theirs behind. But many put them to good use while in school.
In Simone Sagar's special-education classroom, student Ollie Jones recently put stop-motion animation touches on a video project about loons. In Erin Black's kindergarten classroom, kids used iPads to deepen math skills. In Stephanie Draayer's fifth-grade classroom, students did a census exercise that showed nearly half the families — many Karen — had been in their homes for a year or less.
It's a mobile population, the principal said, with students on the move, often within district boundaries. For those who might land next fall in a school where iPads will be deployed for the very first time, their experience presents opportunity, giving them a chance to help classmates embrace new technology.
"Then, they are going to be the leaders," Vang said.