FREEPORT (AP) – The end of the school year is near. It’s warm and sunny, and kids are playing baseball outside.

In Shawn Favreau’s classroom, the kids aren’t focusing on that. They’re busy working on their laptop computers, ignoring the sunshine that might drive a student to distraction while waiting for the bell at Freeport Middle School.

For their final social studies project, they’re using their computers to create multimedia presentations on ancient Greece.

For Kaitlyn Beaule, it’s hard to imagine going back to the days when she was limited to just paper, pencils and textbooks.

“We still do the same things. We just do it differently. The teachers are winging it. They’re looking for ways to make it more interesting,” Beaule said afterward. “I think it’s a lot more fun.”

Maine’s first-in-the-nation program that put computers on the laps of students in all 241 public middle schools has received high marks as the first full year of the experiment draws to a close this month.

The program’s success is underscored by the fact state lawmakers facing a projected $1.2 billion budget shortfall at the start of the legislative session made no attempt to dismantle the project.

The program began last fall with 17,000 seventh-graders and 3,000 teachers using the laptops. Next fall, it will be expanded to eighth-graders for a total of about 33,000 laptops in use.

The $64,000 question for educators is what will happen next. The project was originally envisioned as expanding to include high school students, and a decision is looming for lawmakers and educators.

Legislators will have to act in the next session to provide additional funding if there’s to be a seamless transition when the current crop of middle school students enter high school, officials say.

Gov. John Baldacci said he’s determined to see through the project that was the brainchild of his predecessor.

For now, the state does not have the money, but Baldacci said he’ll “turn over every stone” to find a way to expand the program. A four-year contract with Apple for the first phase in middle schools cost the state $37.2 million.

Already, some school districts are looking at private funding for pilot programs in high schools.

“I’m optimistic. You can’t hold this back. Parents have told me, ‘You better not touch that laptop fund,”‘ he said. “It’s almost like the students and families are going to be demanding that it be continued and expanded.”

So far, a midterm report showed students were more engaged and that absenteeism dropped with the introduction of laptops.

At Freeport Middle School, Principal Chris Toy is enthusiastic about the project. He has seen all sorts of innovations in his 23 years as an educator. This is the first one that really delivered.

“The laptop project, I think, has been the most successful in transforming the way teaching and learning takes place,” he said. “It has been very fast, the changes that have taken place.”

Teachers, some of whom were leery of giving computers to students, have for the most part come around. And the infusion of energy the laptops gave to students carried over into the teaching ranks.

In Favreau’s class, the students use the computers for research, reports and e-mail. Gone are the days of turning in a handwritten report. The assignment is more likely to call for students to compose a movie or a Power Point presentation.

Next door, in Alex Briasco-Brin’s math class, students used their laptops for a project in which they built model rockets.

Elsewhere, a teacher in Pembroke in Washington County used the laptops to communicate in real-time with a deep-sea submersible off Africa. In Bar Harbor, students downloaded screenplays and used them for an assignment.

One of the first things Favreau learned last fall was to sit in the back of the class instead of in front. That allows him to keep an eye on the screens to make sure kids aren’t surfing or playing games.

On a recent day, his 16 students were grouped in twos as they worked on their presentations on Greece. Three were without computers: Two computers were broken and shipped off to Apple for repairs, and a third student lost his computer privileges after gaining access to the administrative password.

The laptops aren’t used all the time. On a command of “lids down,” the students close the computers and shift to textbook or lecture mode.

Toy said the computers allow students to dig deeper into areas of interest. For example, a student studying Egypt could use the laptops to get beyond textbook generalities to detailed information on specific areas of interest, like cats, mummies, hieroglyphics or the Rosetta stone.

For kids, it’s natural. “Kids are digital natives, having grown up with computers,” Toy said. “They’re not afraid of it.”

On the Net:

Maine Learning Technology Initiative

AP-ES-06-08-03 1316EDT

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