Screen time doesn’t always mean a distraction — in classrooms it can just as often mean better focus.

That’s one of the reasons that Williston Public School District No. 1 is going to make sure that students from kindergarten through ninth grade will have access to their own laptop starting this fall. Referred to in education as one-to-one, it means every student will be able to use the computers to work on assignments in class and take advantage of apps to help learn.

The District 1 school board voted to approve spending about $150,000 next year to lease more than 2,000 Chromebooks — lightweight, inexpensive laptops that run an operating system designed by Google. Of those, 1,800 are going to kindergarten through third grade classrooms, while about 300 or so are going to Williston High School for ninth-graders.

The newest computers mean that nearly every student will have a laptop. Fifth and sixth-graders at Bakken Elementary have had them since the 2016-17 school year, seventh and eighth-graders at Williston Middle School got them at the beginning of this year, fourth-graders around the district got them a few months ago and high schoolers have been able to bring their own devices or check out computers since the new high school opened in fall 2016.

District superintendent Jeffrey Thake saw a fourth-grade class he thought might benefit from having access to Chromebooks, so he asked Leon Walters, the district’s technology director, to see if that was possible.

“So that was kind of the first step into getting one-to-one going in K through 4 around the district,” Walters said.

And the class that Thake recommended the Chromebooks for has had what he calls an astounding amount of academic progress. Part of that is because having access to the computer means an increase in engagement with the material.

Having access to the laptops doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re going to be used every minute of every day. Rather, they offer a way to capture students’ interest in a topic and give them access to resources far beyond a textbook.

Having the computers will also mean that teachers and administrators can keep track of what apps are being used and, when combined with assessments throughout the year, get a better sense of which programs offer an educational benefit.

The computers are part of Thake’s plan to remake education in District 1 so students can learn at their own pace and in the ways that serve them best.

“Being one-to-one with Chromebooks is a very, very important step,” he said.

This year, Thake’s first as superintendent, has been filed with pilot programs in individual classrooms. More and more technology is being integrated into teaching, for example, and teachers are trying new ideas for making learning more personalized.

Starting this summer, the district is going to look at how those programs went and start making a plan for personalized learning for every student. That isn’t going to come from the top down, though, Thake said.

“We want to keep listening to our teachers, who are in turn listening to our students,” he said.

Over the next several years, the district is going to continue leasing more Chromebooks, with the plan of having one available for every student. At some grade levels, the computers will be kept in classrooms for students to use during the school day, while at others, students will be able to take the computers home to use for homework.

The personalized learning initiative, the one-to-one plan and other programs the district is considering, including a Makerspace at the high school, come from Thake’s experience and from the fact that multiple people in the district are members of national boards that talk about technology and innovation in learning. Thake is confident that being part of those organizations has already started to pay off.

“Williston District 1 is going to be at the table where we’re talking about the most innovative programs in the country,” he said.

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