By Curt Yeomans
For nearly 50 students at North Clayton Middle School, paper and pencil no longer plays a major role in their everyday learning experience.
The school is participating in a computer-based learning program called Learning Without Walls, which is offered by the Alliance for Digital Equality (ADE). Through the program, select students do all of their class work, and homework, on laptop computers assigned to them at the beginning of the school year.
North Clayton Middle School is the only school in Georgia participating in the program, according to ADE and school officials.
"We've always been aggressive with our quest for digital learning, and for students to be engaged, so we were glad to have an opportunity to participate in this program," North Clayton Middle School Principal Clarence Jackson said. "All of the subjects' content areas are the same as other classes, but the students are learning by using the Internet, and not much through the textbook."
There are currently 42 students using the laptop computers, Jackson said. He said half of the students are in a class within the school's all-male academy, and the other pupils are in a class within the school's all-female academy.
Jackson said 50 laptop computers were donated to the school by ADE, through a partnership with AT&T, Qualcomm, Tutor.com, SMART Technologies and social-learning network company Saywire. The students carry the computers with them in specialized backpacks designed to hold laptop computers, and the pupils are allowed to take them home to do their homework.
"It does not cost the school anything, and it does not cost the school system anything," Jackson said. "It does not cost the students anything either."
The program at North Clayton Middle School began in May when ADE representatives began developing the Georgia Performance Standards-based curriculum for the classes with Clayton County Public Schools officials, ADE Chairman Julius Hollis said.
Clayton County Public Schools was chosen as a test area for the program because there is already an online tutoring program provided by the Clayton County Library Foundation, Hollis said. North Clayton Middle School was chosen because of its attempts to improve education, such as the school's all-male and all-female academies, according to Hollis and Learning Without Walls Program Director Claire Harleston.
Hollis said the program is available at only one other school, in Charleston, S.C., which like the Atlanta area, is home to one of ADE's eight offices. He said he hopes to eventually expand the program to include the other cities, which are Boston, Chicago, Dallas, Detroit, Houston and Miami.
The laptop computers were distributed to the students in August, when the school year started, and the pupils use them for virtually all of their class work, according to students, teachers and ADE officials.
Walter Davis, a seventh- and eighth-grade language arts teacher in North Clayton Middle School's all-male academy, said the use of computers in the classroom helps because it gives students access to online tutoring, and group-learning activities.
"With these laptop computers, it's going to elevate the level of instruction in the classroom because there are more educational resources available to the students through the Internet," Davis said.
Seventh-grader, Nwamaka Nnadi, 12, a student in North Clayton's all-female academy, said she and her fellow students use the computers during the school day to write essays; participate in online science projects; practice math problems, and read books online.
Another seventh-grader in the all-female academy, Tatiana Williams, 12, said students also do their homework on the computers and send it to their teachers. "I like doing my work on the computer because it's easier to handle," she said.
Nnadi added, "I think it's great that we were chosen for this ... We are going to be able to have another tool at our disposal to help us in our learning."
Two other seventh-graders, Edward Hewitt and Malik-Nahon Kenyatta, both 12, and both in North Clayton's all-male academy, said they like using the computers because it is easier to save documents on a laptop than it is to save pieces of paper.
"On the computer, you can save your work, and you know you likely won't lose it, but if you were doing it on paper, it might get torn, or accidentally thrown away," Kenyatta said.
The program at North Clayton got a visit Wednesday morning from Federal Communications Commission Commissioner Mignon Clyburn and Clayton County Commission Chairman Eldrin Bell, who briefly offered some words of encouragement to students during visits to two classes at the school.
ADE Deputy Director of Special Projects Cynthia Miller said the organization invited Clyburn to visit the school because the FCC is working on a national Broadband Internet policy for President Barack Obama, and they wanted the commissioner to see the possible educational uses of Broadband Internet.
After the visit, Clyburn said she felt the use of computers and wireless Internet in the classroom helps students learn, because it gives the pupils additional sources of information to turn to for their school work.
"The sky's the limit really," Clyburn said. "There's a whole host of things available on the Internet to help them gain a better understanding of the topics they are studying."