When VIDA Middle School in Vista, California, received a grant to hand every one of its 680 students an iPad with a free 4G connection, parents were excited.
They were also a little nervous.
"We have a large population of students who walk," says Principal Eric Chagala. "The fear was, you are putting a $700 or $800 device in my 11-year-old's hand, and they have to get home."
So, Chagala hit the streets of the working class neighborhood around the school. He talked to local police. He dropped in on area pawn shops, to ask them to call the school if people started showing up with iPads to sell.
VIDA, or the Vista Innovation & Design Academy, is a year-old magnet school that replaced the struggling Washington Middle School.
The long rows of classrooms and outdoor hallways now have a fresh coat of paint and regular appearances by the new mascot, a shark.
The VIDA community chose the shark as a mascot because of how it serves as an example of biomimicry, which fits the school's themes of design and innovation.
The old teacher's lounge has been turned into a maker's space, where sixth-graders recently worked to build models of carnival attractions with wood blocks, cardboard and plastic containers. They used their iPads to design the models earlier in the week.
One group of kids is building a haunted house using CDs to create broken glass. Another team is working on an ambitious spinning ride — it has sprinklers, a concession stand and sharks. It's happy chaos.
Traditional classes here have also been transformed by the technology.
"We now have students who look at historical dilemmas and be problem solvers," says William Olive, a history teacher with 27 years of experience.
He no longer drills students on facts. He says his job now is to help students use the tech to explore and create. Many of his students didn't have that kind of access before at home or at school. One-third of the students in the upper grades at the school are homeless.
"I teach a junior Model United Nations club, and 13 of the 19 students didn't have a computer or printer at home," Olive says. "For them to have access to an iPad is revolutionary."
At school, students use their tablets for research and to create presentations. Olive says they have a whole new set of questions about the world, from the South China Sea to the Sudan.
"It gives a more of a level playing field, it also helps their families," he says. "Now their families have access to technology and are starting to understand it."
But students are also under a new kind of pressure to take care of their devices. They can't lose it or misuse it. They, and their parents, are anxious about the costs of replacing it if things do go wrong.
Chagala feels a new responsibility too, one with a bigger price tag: keeping up this level of access.
"Our richest kid and our poorest kid, there is no difference in access and opportunity for learning for them at this point," he says.
Students at VIDA middle school use their iPad tablets in class for assignments, but also to complete homework and email teachers.
The current grant from Digital Promise and Verizon lasts two years. After that, the school gets to keep the iPads, but they lose the free 4G connectivity.
"I'm scared to death," Chagala says. "It's been such a blessing. I don't think our kids could imagine not having access."
District and city officials are working on a plan to keep the kids connected and expand access to even more students.
Photos by Millie Jefferson for Marketplace
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