Teachers from across the Madison County School District participate in training courses with their new MacBook Air laptops. The district is implementing a new program this school year which gives high schoolers laptops.
Teachers from across the Madison County School District participate in training courses with their new MacBook Air laptops. The district is implementing a new program this school year which gives high schoolers laptops.
The Madison County School District will issue each of its nearly 5,000 high school students and teachers an Apple MacBook Air laptop, Superintendent Dr. Ronnie McGehee confirmed Tuesday.

The $4.5 million investment that has been named the 1:M Digital Initiative, was dreamt of by McGehee for nearly a decade and recently approved by the county School Board.

When you enter a classroom in the upcoming school year, McGehee said, you're going to see laptops on top of desks instead of text books and teachers using an Apple TV at the front of the class instead of a dry-erase board.

"Having an advantage over your future competition is the whole key to quality education," McGehee said Tuesday. "It's the key to moving out of poverty. Our graduates will have skills that other school districts do not offer, and they'll be prepared to continue their education, either at the junior college or four-year college level."

McGehee said teachers have had their laptops since late spring, and have been attending "Meet your Mac" training courses over the summer.

Vicky Williams, the new journalism instructor at Madison Central High School, said she was excited about the upcoming school year and the new technology.

"I feel like everything is going to be a lot easier because technology is going to be right in their hands," she said. "Where in the past, that was a bit of an obstacle."

She is already changing up her curriculum some and said the computers will allow for more interactive teaching lessons.

"We're all very excited because we're going to be able to do a lot more things now."

Ginger Joe, consumer sciences teacher at Ridgeland High School, said this will better prepare students across the district for college.

"This is the way it will be when they get to college," she said. "I think it's going to have a positive impact on the district."

She said being able to put all assignments and learning materials online in one place will allow students to study and do work without having to worry about leaving notes at school.

"This is also good for students not in class," she said. "To be able to get the assignments without being there will be very easy."

Skeptical parents will be happy to know that McGehee and the school board have already tackled some of the biggest obstacles to the project, like determining where responsibility for the devices lies, which retail at nearly $1,000.

- Parents or guardians will be asked to pay a $50 fee at the beginning of each school year. The fee is mandatory.

- Each laptop will include protective casing that is color-coded to the school the student attends, and a security application called Computrace that tracks the location of the computer will ensure recovery if the computer is stolen or lost.

- If the computer cannot be recovered, Computrace has agreed to compensate the school district for the cost of the computer.

- If the student breaks the computer, the $50 fee covers the deductible for the first incident.

- An irremovable Internet content filter, provided by MCS, will continue to work on and off campus, so students using the district's network will be restricted in what they can view online (The Children's Internet Protection Act actually requires this).

The laptops are already in, and will be distributed - along with a power adapter, the protective case and a carrying sleeve - to students at a time and date designated for their individual high school (see insert). Parents or guardians will be required to accompany their child when they come to pick up their device.

The school district has been saving funds and making improvements to infrastructure with an eye on implementing the initiative for much longer.

Director of Information Management Systems Gavin Guynes said every switch in every classroom has been systematically replaced, and that WiFi is currently available in every classroom of every high school in the district.

"This is something that Dr. McGehee talked to me about when he first hired me eight years ago," he said. "Because of that planning, we've been able to do all of this without raising taxes or the millage rate. Our amount of money we're spending this year is increasing, sure, but we are not asking for any more funding than we have in past years."

The goal, eventually, is to be able to sell the laptops at discounted prices to the students who have used them throughout their high school years, Guynes said - but he added that legality issues may force the district to go through a third party seller to do it.

Only a handful of other school districts in the state have been able to implement similar initiatives, with Madison County being the first to do it at the county level.

But why a Mac, you might ask?

The district bought five MacBook Airs and five Lenovo Yoga 2s, and placed them in high schools around the district for a test-drive. Students and teachers were asked for their input on how the machines operate, and other measures like functionality, durability and battery life were recorded.

In all areas, McGehee said the MacBook Air out-performed the competition. When the requests for proposals for the initiative came in, Apple had come back with a price the school board considered reasonable.

Even so, the school district also purchased Lenovo, Dell, and Apple products for use in the district's middle schools, in an effort to allow students to learn how to use the different platforms.

"It's a multiple-platform world," McGehee said. "We can't let our students get comfortable with one way of doing something, because one day an employer might hand them a Dell laptop and say 'Good luck.'"