AUBURN — For the past four weeks, kindergartners in Sue LaRue's class have used iPad 2 tablet computers.
The 13 students used the iPads for literacy, math and story time.
“It engages them so much; it keeps their attention," the Washburn Elementary School teacher said Thursday. "When I'm doing flash cards or reading books, they drift off.”
The iPads helped her tailor lessons to meet individual needs, she said. “Some children need a lot of repetition," and the iPads give them that, she said.
After hearing similar feedback from other teachers who used iPads in May and June, the Auburn School Department will continue with its plan to put iPad 2s into the hands of all kindergarten students in the fall.
The $228,000 to buy 409 iPad 2s, cases, headphones and technology support will be paid from the School Department budget.
The rollout will be in two waves, to compare how students do with and without the devices.
Half of the city's 285 kindergarten students will get iPads at the start of school; the other half will get them in early November, said Peter Robinson, the School Department's technology director, during a report to the Auburn School Committee on Wednesday night.
Five classes using iPads for four weeks this year gave good feedback but not the hard data needed to secure grants to pay for the iPads, Robinson said.
“The full picture will take some years to come,” Robinson said. "We are absolutely correct in continuing on as planned. We'll do the best we can to research it and make sure it really is right.”
Comparing learning between two groups of kindergartners — one with iPads and one without — will provide data on how iPads affect learning, Robinson said.
He said he was working with a researcher at Boston College who has a world-class reputation in education technology research. "It was his very strong recommendation we really need to have group comparisons.”
Test scores and progress reports will be compared. Those data will provide research "to unlock some funding, significant federal dollars, that could lead to funding this program,” Robinson said.
The cost this year will be paid from the 2010-11 budget in several areas, federal stimulus money, $96,000; unexpended balances, $92,611; day care and grants, $7,300; and unspent money in the technology balance account, $22,841.
Asked what happened to the plan to pay for iPads through grant money, School Committee Chairman David Das said the federal stimulus money is a grant that expires June 30.
“We used it for the iPads instead of math books or special ed,” Das said. “The iPads are not part of the 2011-12 budget."
Committee member Bonnie Hayes asked why the district was buying 409 iPads, when there are only 285 incoming kindergarten students.
Robinson said staff who work with kindergartners would also get iPads, as would students in multiage classes with kindergartners and first-graders.
“You don't want to give iPads to just kindergartners and have first-graders looking at them with green-eyed jealousy,” he said.
He said students in the pilot group last month adapted to the tablets immediately. In one class, students interviewed each other using video cameras built into the iPads.
The devices are rugged, Robinson said. They've been dropped but did not break. Five-year-olds “are more careful than adults give them credit for.”
And Auburn is attracting national attention, he said.
“Apple is working with us to bring a national conference on using iPads in early childhood education to Auburn this fall,” Robinson said.