When school begins next week at Deerfield and Highland Park high schools, every freshman and sophomore will have a Chromebook, a laptop that some educators say will boost student engagement in the classroom.
After this school year, incoming freshman will be required to have the device, officials said. By the 2016-17 school year, all students will have one. Parents will be asked to pay for a portion of the cost of the laptops' purchase, with the district picking up the rest of the tab.
So far, the district has bought 2,058 Chromebooks — enough to cover the freshman and sophomore classes at both schools, while also providing "loaners" when necessary and stocking additional carts that can be used in the higher grade levels, said Sue Hebson, assistant superintendent for instruction and communications for District 113.
The district is not unique in this push toward a so-called "one-to-one" ratio of students per technological device. National experts say schools throughout the country are taking the leap using varied approaches, with some opting for a "bring your own" approach and others — like District 113 — adopting a particular type of device.
In 2014, public schools in the United States are expected to spend $9.94 billion on technology in grades K-12, an increase of 2.5 percent from the previous year, said Joe Morris, director of market intelligence for the Center for Digital Education, a California-based market research firm.
Various factors, including implementation of the federal Common Core standards, the proliferation of e-textbooks and the quickly evolving technology of devices, have contributed to the growth, Morris said.
The new Chromebooks will enhance how students interact with each other, with the teacher and, more broadly, with the world, said Tom Koulentes, principal at Highland Park High School. He said teachers also will be able to better assess student work as it's in progress.
"This is a complete transformation of the learning environment in our high school," Koulentes said in a recent interview.
Not everyone's thrilled.
Amy Small, a Highland Park High parent, said at a recent school board meeting that some parents were upset at having to buy the device when their children already have other similar devices, such as an iPad.
"I think you need to be more in touch with your people," Small told the school board, "because people are not really happy about the Chromebooks."
The district has spent nearly $561,000 on Chromebooks, Hebson said, and families will help defray that cost. Freshmen will pay $40 a year for four years; sophomores will pay $53 per year for three years.
That means families are paying about half the cost of the Chromebook, she said, and the device becomes student property upon graduation.
In separate interviews, both Hebson and Koulentes said they understood concerns from parents like Small. But from a "systems perspective," Hebson said it's much easier for teachers and technology support staff to have all students using the same device.
There's also a matter of equity, Hebson said. While many Highland Park and Deerfield students already have some sort of device, there are some who don't.
"At times, we may have forgotten how many students there are who didn't have access," Hebson said.
The Chromebook compared favorably with similar devices, Hebson said, because it's relatively inexpensive, easy to maintain and operates quickly and powerfully. Unlike iPad, Chromebook has a keyboard.
With technology constantly evolving, the district might consider other devices in the future, Hebson said. The Chromebook program is essentially a three- to four-year plan, according to officials.
In the coming year, District 113's feeder districts — North Shore School District 112 and Deerfield Public Schools District 109 — will use Chromebooks in grades three through eight. The three districts have collaborated on recent staff training opportunities, officials said.
Nationally, Chromebook has become increasingly popular for schools because of its low cost and "the tremendous amount of free Google apps" that are tailored toward education, Morris said.
Jose Acosta, 50, has taught Spanish at Highland Park High School for 15 years. He doesn't consider himself to be a "tech-y" person but nonetheless said he's excited about the new technology.
Acosta was part of a Chromebook pilot program for a semester last year. His students used the devices to research Spanish-speaking countries and build Google sites that helped prepare them for the advanced placement exam.
Ultimately, it will be the responsibility of each teacher to learn how to use Chromebooks in a way that's effective for their students, he said. And it will be a learning process for everyone involved.
"It's an opportunity to keep growing," Acosta said. "Teaching is evolving so much. You really do have to get your feet wet. You can't sit on the side and say, 'I'm not going to do it.'"