With a school-supplied laptop computer and a little teacher guidance, a Glenn Elementary School fourth-grader happily learned about pronouns.

“It’s just really fun,” said Julia Stackhouse, 9, as she watched a video and participated in interactive exercises in the classroom of Denise Holmes.

The Normal school’s fourth-graders are part of a pilot project in which every student has a laptop or netbook computer in class and access to an online curriculum designed by the teacher.

McLean County Unit 5 is using “digital conversion” projects to look at current curriculum, instruction and testing to see how computers could improve them, said Loren Baele, the Normal-based district’s director of technology.

“It’s not about the devices; it’s about how we change and how we deliver instruction in the classroom,” said Unit 5 Superintendent Gary Niehaus, who will bring more information — including funding options — to the school board in January.

The computers’ ability to provide instant access to content and discussion thrills science teacher Sean Mullins, whose students at George L. Evans Junior High School recently used 32 netbooks to read and talk about new science articles.

Officials say that over the long term, shifting to computers would save money on textbooks. Financial constraints in recent years have prompted Unit 5 to reduce the money it spends on textbooks annually from about $1 million to less than $200,000 in each of the last two years, district Business Manager Erik Bush said.

Converting to digital resources would involve an initial one-time cost for the infrastructure (wiring and building updates) of $3 million to $4 million for Unit 5, Bush estimated.

In addition, “the cost of devices (laptops, tablet, and netbooks) range from $400 to $500 per unit and would be ongoing as we would be supplying students at either the middle school or freshman level individual units annually,” Bush said.

Students leave the devices at school, but most children have computer and Internet access at home, Unit 5 leaders said.

The project involves students at Glenn, Northpoint and Benjamin elementary schools; Kingsley and Evans junior high schools; and Normal and Normal Community West high schools.

Bloomington District 87 wants to get its infrastructure in place before it moves to one-on-one computers. It is talking to the city and community groups to get Wi-Fi access for neighborhoods within its boundaries.

About half of the District 87 students are from low-income families, and Superintendent Barry Reilly is worried about students who don’t have home access to computers. Both districts have worked hard to close the achievement gap between low income/minority students and others, and he doesn’t want it widened by lack of Internet access at home.

Last fall, Unit 5 board member Jay Reece and other teachers and administrators visited Mooresville, N.C., a leader in effective use of digital technology. “It was fascinating to see what students are doing there,” he said. “I’d like to see us try. …  The cost is somewhat daunting.”

Some funding for the Unit 5 pilot projects came from money targeted toward technology in a 2008 property tax referendum. Glenn students are using laptops the school won through a contest in 2009. Third- and fifth-graders have netbooks; younger students have tablets, which are easier to use, Baele said.

Holmes joked that students don’t take nearly as many bathroom breaks since the laptops came to class, and Glenn Principal Julia Schoonover said discipline problems also “have significantly been cut.”

Internet safety and keeping students on task are part of the pilot program.

“I can see what is on every student’s screen, and can lock it or shut it down immediately,” Holmes said.

Editor's note: An earlier version of this story provided the wrong first name for Sean Mullins. The story has been corrected.

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