NEWBURYPORT — Until now, they were almost considered contraband in Newburyport schools.
But a philosophy that had students leaving their smartphones and mobile devices in their locker or backpack for fear they would distract from learning is about to change.
With the rollout of wireless capability at the high school and a similar upgrade planned this spring at Nock Middle/Molin Upper Elementary School, educators will instead be encouraging students to tote their iPads and other tablets, smartphones and laptops into the classroom.
The plan, dubbed From Home Technology Program, is intended to increase students' access to learning tools on the Web, while decreasing demand on the district's inventory of computers.
Students without personal access to a laptop or tablet will be able to use one of the computers available at the school. The Newburyport Education Foundation, which is footing the bill for increasing the district's wireless capabilities, plans to provide schools with additional electronic devices in the future.
"The superintendent was working on his plan and what his priorities were going to be, and wireless came to the top really fast for him," NEF board member Cindy Johnson said of the group's recent gift. "That's largely because, what it's going to do is increase the access to technology, because students can bring in their own technology. You'll have more flexibility on where you could use it, because you won't have to go to a hard-wired computer anymore."
Superintendent Marc Kerble this week told the School Committee that students and faculty are anxiously awaiting the official opening day for wireless access. It's currently up and running with password protection, but Kerble said that since policies regarding acceptable usage are still being hammered out, complete access probably won't happen until students return from February vacation.
The policy will include language similar to one in place for the Burlington School District, which requires students to restrict their use of the Internet to searches related to their coursework. Burlington provides devices to all its students through a lease or purchase program.
Unlike Burlington, Newburyport will not employ an entire department to police student activity on the Net during school hours. The network will be open to all.
"The expectation would be that students would use the wireless network for the classroom and for no other reason," Kerble said.
Kerble said that the addition of the new wireless will ease the burden that technology costs have placed on the district's budget — both now and in the future.
According to Johnson, the cost to install wireless at the high school fell in the $85,000 range, after about $10,000 in supporting electrical infrastructure that was required to make the changes was installed.
Given that local installer Peter Katavolos offered to throw in the wireless installation at the middle school for no additional cost, Johnson said that funding the purchase was a no-brainer for the NEF.
"This was something they wanted, and compared to the other bids, getting the middle school for free was huge," she said.
With improvements planned in the high school library, which is moving toward the 21st century by investing more heavily in technological resources and devices, officials said the opportunities to pilot new ways of learning are endless.
Johnson said pilot programs are under way at the schools that use technology like never before. The improvements will likely prompt more teachers to consider new programs to better engage students and increase their understanding of course material, using methods familiar to them, she said.
While some teachers in the past may have hung back on implementing new technology plans, Johnson thinks they'll be more inclined to think along those lines now that wireless will be available.
"You've doubled your capacity," Johnson said. "The goal was to give more access and tools that students expect to be able to use. That's the vision, whether it's an iPad or laptop or a smartphone. If someone has to work on a paper or their homework, they won't have to jockey for one of the computers in the library."
As part of its three-year campaign to raise funds from the community for technological and other upgrades in the district, the Newburyport Education Foundation stands ready to help the schools purchase additional machines for those who need them, Johnson said.
"The feeling was, across the board, that there would be a significant go-ahead by having access all the way through the school and it would encourage people who had been holding back from trying," Johnson said. "I think a billion flowers will bloom."