At one table, Lydia Hawkins and her boys — sixth-grader Nico and eighth-grader Cinsere — pored over passwords and user names and instructions for downloading apps. At another, Jenny Werth and her son Tristan Hendricks carefully read instructions. Then there was Kathryn Grover, 13, who couldn’t quite believe her awesome luck at getting an iPad for school.

“You’re supposed to charge this thing every single night,” she said to her mom, Karen. “Hey, there’s a camera!”

Shuffle 400-plus families through several rooms, have them follow instruction manuals and call tech support for help, and you’ll get an idea of what it was like Tuesday afternoon at St. Paul’s Parkway Middle School.

In a mostly low-key rollout, the St. Paul public schools’ grand experiment with putting a new iPad in the hands of every one of its students began with little fanfare but, officials hope, with plenty of promise as the East Side school became the first to roll out the new technology.

By the end of February, district officials said, students at 39 St. Paul schools will be using iPads to download lessons, create reports, conduct research and follow individualized instruction in subjects ranging from math to languages. By the end of next school year, all district students will have an iPad as part of their everyday classwork.

“Our goal is to roll this out as smoothly as we can and to use whatever hiccups we might have to make sure the district learns the best way to do this,” said Timothy Hofmann, Parkway’s principal.

As many as 512 families of students in grades 6-8 were expected to have the devices in hand by the end of the four-hour rollout. A team of teachers, administrators, techies and others had been planning this day at Parkway, a Montessori school, for the past month, Hofmann said.

Parkway teachers, who did not know they would be the first in the district to get iPads, participated in training this summer on how to best integrate the technology with student learning. Hofmann said the technology fits well with Parkway’s teaching methods. For instance, using one iPad application, students at different reading levels can read the same book at the same time, but with vocabulary and sentence structure tailored to their abilities.

“This is when an iPad can open up a world to this kind of educational style. There are thousands of applications like that,” he said.

St. Paul’s iPad initiative is the largest ever for a state school system. It comes courtesy of a $9 million annual technology levy approved by St. Paul voters in 2012. On Tuesday, Parkway teacher Jenny Madden gave parents and students the “do’s” and “don’ts” of iPad use.

Do use them to create movies, take pictures and research subjects on the Internet, she said. Don’t let other people use them, leave them in the car, look at them while waiting for the bus (for threat of theft) or download inappropriate material.

“Just help us monitor what your students are putting on their iPads,” Madden told parents.

After orientation, students got their iPads at one station. At the next, they had to log in using their student accounts and e-mail. There, Tristan Hendricks and his mother, Jenny Werth, took their time following the steps to activate the iPad.

“I think it’s neat,” Werth said. “But I’m concerned about safety. Everybody’s going to know that it’s in his backpack.”

The plan, she said, is to keep it on the hush-hush and not take it out in public.

After some technical glitches — some families had a hard time loading their passwords — students took their iPads to a final station: Verification. There, officials checked to make sure everything was loaded and protected and ready to go.

Hofmann said Parkway staff was excited to have the first crack at the technology, but nervous too. In the end, he said, he hoped his families would gain a glimpse into its potential.

“These are just tools. They’re tools the way a textbook used to be, the way a calculator is,” he said. “This is a gateway of possibility.”