Last week, as Los Angeles Unified officials debated and complained about the speed, cost and logistics of the troubled iPad rollout, students around the sprawling district were putting the tablet computers to good use.
Fifth-graders at Western Avenue Elementary in South LA were downloading apps and creating multimedia presentations.
An eighth-grade English class at Paul Revere Charter Middle School on the Westside was mapping Huck Finn's route along the Mississippi River.
At ArTES Academy in San Fernando, high school students were taking notes in English Lit, graphing equations in chemistry and dreaming up fantasy 3-D flowers in graphic design class.
"It's really about creating learning opportunities and making all learning more accessible," John Lawler, the principal at the Art, Theatre, Entertainment School, said during a campus tour. "It's also about letting them find something really amazing."
In the three months since the launch of the district's $1 billion Common Core Technology Project, most of the public's attention has been focused on technical and administrative problems that have cropped up during the rollout.
Some 300 students at three high schools erased digital safeguards and browsed unauthorized websites, prompting Superintendent John Deasy to impose a moratorium on taking the devices home. Three of the 47 schools in Phase 1 -- Muir, Palms and Webster Middle schools -- don't even want the iPads on campus until security issues are resolved.
Kids at the Valley Academy of Arts and Sciences in Granada Hills are limited to using their iPads only during home room because of persistent sign-on problems with about 30 of the tablets. The district is trying to resolve that issue, even as it works to come up with tougher security features for all of the devices.
Those problems, plus concerns about the cost and scope of the project, prompted the Bond Oversight Committee to recommend last week that the school board slash $90 million in equipment from the $135 million plan for Phase 2. The board is set to vote Dec. 10 on that proposal.
But Lawler and several other officials working at the ground level of the iPad rollout say the lessons learned from those problems should be used to help shape -- not delay -- its future.
"We're using the iPads all day, every day," Lawler said. "We're figuring it out, and designing as we go."
Stored on carts in ArTES classrooms, the iPads are checked out by students at the start of their morning advisory period and returned at day's end, a process that takes about 10 minutes.
Like their students, the educators at ArTES have varying levels of comfort and experience with the tablets.
"I don't know how to use it as well as my students, and I'm not far enough ahead of them to be able to think about apps and projects and advanced learning," said English teacher Allison Conant.
In another classroom, teacher Laura Jaeggi had her English Literature class download "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" onto their iPads, which they then used to take notes and quickly look up unfamiliar words during a lively discussion of T.S. Eliot's dramatic monologue.
"When there's more accessibility, there's more willingness to engage and become part of the conversation," Jaeggi said later. "They're not just looking at words on a page but having a real-life experience."
The graphic arts students in Noah Massey's class created imaginary blossoms in rainbow hues, which they displayed from every angle, thanks to the 3-D capability of the iPad.
"Most of these students probably won't go on to have an art career, but we're teaching them 21st century skills like flexibility and creativity and how to adapt and collaborate," Lawler said. "Those are the skills they need for college or a job."
Fern Somoza, the principal at Paul Revere Middle School, figured out a way to distribute iPads to about one-third of the students at the middle school, based on the configuration of their classrooms. The rest of the kids won't get their devices until the district decides it's OK for the iPads to be taken home -- a decision she hopes will come by February.
"You have to start somewhere and give them the opportunity to start somewhere because this is the future -- excuse me, this is now," Somoza told the Bond Oversight Committee last week. "My students are ready to go, and the teachers are, too."
iPads are slowly being reintroduced at Roosevelt High, which temporarily took away all 2,000 devices after dozens of its students were involved in the security breach. For now, only English classes are using the tablets, although officials hope to expand to other subjects by year's end.
ArTES was part of last year's pilot test of the iPads and is also is one of the program's Phase 1 schools. That early experience has made Lawler the go-to guy for help on iPad apps and teacher training, and he also appeared last week on a district-sponsored TV show to tout the success of the technology program.
One of his primarily messages is to teach students digital citizenship -- to take responsibility for their online activities -- and to allow them to participate in the learning revolution.
"Education has to move at the same speed as innovation," he said. "It's not about teaching specific skills as much as abilities." ___