The St. Paul School District will roll out an iPad initiative this fall that is the largest ever for a state school system — and as the label on the back of each device makes clear, many people have a stake in it.

"Provided by taxpayers of St. Paul for students of St. Paul public schools," the tag reads.

Just three months ago, the district, wrestling with how best to use technology to tailor learning to individual student needs, abruptly ditched a strategy it had sold to voters in 2012 and decided instead to put iPads in the hands of its nearly 40,000 students.

Since then, officials have raced to deliver on the plan, identifying 37 schools for the first phase of the launch and developing a list of core apps students will use.

They're also partnering with teachers, students and administrators on training sessions that, in one computer lab last week at Washington Technology Magnet School, pointed to both the promise and challenge of employing the devices for learning.

With an iPad in hand, Craig Anderson, principal of Hamline Elementary in St. Paul, used an app called Nearpod to project images and videos, and to gather instant responses — viewable by him on his device — to questions posed to the 21 teachers in Room 1630.

To a query about what made them the "most happy" about the one-to-one use of iPads, one teacher replied: All of my students can be involved.

Anderson noted later that a few teachers had yet to figure out how to log into the presentation.

"This will be a great year of exploration," said Superintendent Valeria Silva of the work and the risks ahead. Diane Smith, a fifth-grade teacher at Hamline Elementary, already has seen such an adventure pay off.

Last school year, Hamline Elementary, armed with a $50,000 grant from the Verizon Foundation, made iPads available to all students in grades two through five. Nearly nine of 10 students at the school qualify for free or reduced-price lunches, according to state Department of Education data.

At first, Smith's class was locked into math apps. Then the students found the means to give full flower to their own ideas, and the learning took off. Tri-fold displays, the staple of science fairs and history days, soon gave way to iPad creations.

"I knew that when I could get them going, it'd be just never-ending," Smith said.

She found, too, that by instantly seeing where kids were at on a given lesson, she could differentiate and meet individual needs more quickly and efficiently.

Like a pencil

In May, Silva announced the district was changing course on a $9-million-per-year voter-approved initiative, "Personalized Learning Through Technology." Cast aside were the original plans for a Facebook-like Web page through which teachers and students could interact.

Embraced, instead, was the one-to-one iPad initiative — just the kind of device-laden plan that voters had been told would not be pursued.

Officials say the St. Paul district now can capitalize on advances made in the use of iPads for learning, and ensure that minority and low-income students are on equal footing with students of other public school systems.

Minnetonka, for example, has moved to a one-to-one iPad plan, although at a more deliberate pace.

Still, observers wonder: Did St. Paul move too quickly and without the benefit of solid planning?

For about a year, the district has worked to improve its technology infrastructure, according to Katie Wilcox-Harris, assistant superintendent of personalized learning, and is now "absolutely confident" it can support the influx of the new devices.

Teachers are in the midst of completing nine hours of professional development training. At Washington Technology Magnet School, where 116 participants gathered last Monday, sessions ranged from beginner to advanced levels.

It's expected that the iPads will be employed to varying degrees in the classrooms. But the point, according to proponents such as Anderson, is to have the devices in students' hands so they can create and, hopefully, innovate.

Anderson, who likens the iPad to a pencil, warns of the danger of "overplanning" and limiting how far teachers and students can take it.

"As educators, we have the luxury of whether to use the tool or not," he said. "But kids are not going to have the option of living in a world that doesn't use technology."

Worth the investment

The district, thanks to its technology levy, has the resources. In June, the school board approved a $5.72 million lease arrangement with Apple Inc. that will climb to about $8 million annually in 2015-16, when the iPad project is in full operation at 61 school sites.

The district has possession of 27,760 iPads and 1,385 MacBook laptops, with the bulk being stored for now in a warehouse with upgraded security. Students will begin receiving their iPads one school at a time during the third week of October.

For now, officials do not expect to charge families an upfront fee for use of the iPads. The district has a right to charge for missing or broken devices, but officials believe that by educating students and families about responsible use, and enforcing consequences (including reviews of iPad care and, for repeat offenders, an iPad Academy class), it can avoid charging for misuse.

The devices come courtesy of taxpayers, after all, and to hear Smith tell it, if they are handled right, they'll be worth the investment.

"The iPads help all students have the confidence to learn," she said.

Anthony Lonetree • 651-925-5036