When School Technology Programs Affect Family Policy

The letter from the local high school came in the mail two weeks before first day of classes, amidst an assortment of administrative odds and ends, and I frankly didn’t catch it’s significance until after the new school year began.  What prompted me to go back and review it again was a comment from Middle, who’s now in high school; he remarked that he’d be getting a laptop in January and when I responded that it was unlikely, he told me that it was being given to all high school students as the start of a new “1 to 1” program.  This news was problematic since we’ve made it a point to not provide the kids with their own laptops until going off to college and this was what happened with Eldest, who received a laptop as a graduation present in May of her senior year.  This was compounded a day later by Youngest’s comment that they – his sixth grade class – had been told that they could now bring in their smartphones, laptops and iThingies starting in the Fall in order to also access the web with their teachers.  Because we do try to control the level of access and amount of screen time, Youngest has none of these devices.  So…what to do when the family technology policy collides squarely with the policy initiatives of the local school district?

This initiative revolves around grant money that can be used to purchase inexpensive laptops for the high school students.  In January, 2014, each district high school student will receive a new laptop, to be used throughout their secondary education period and afterwards, each class of incoming freshmen will receive the same for their four year period.  The rationale for this program is the letter’s reference to the opportunity for students to now take full advantage of all that technology offers in terms of educational opportunity and there are certainly good reasons for such an investment.  The presence of the laptops permits faculty to direct their students to a much broader scope of information available through the internet, potentially opening more young minds to possibilities.  Likewise, it’s “green” and there is far fewer paper used and far more trees saved.  A more prosaic reason is that with more resources available online, even textbooks, the school has less cost for school supplies.  Wow, someone else’s money for a one-time investment and X% of our own costs go away…For The Win, Baby!

While it’s a win for the school district, it’s both a question and just one more thing to monitor within the household.  We’re not Amish by any means and there’s certainly screen time going on within the household, but it’s been a conscious decision and ongoing effort to create family guidelines, monitor activity and enforce limits regarding electronics.  The remaining two kids in the household – Middle and Youngest – are definitely behind the curve from an electronics standpoint as there are no game systems, iThingies or smartphones although Middle now possesses a cell phone to match his driver’s permit.  There are families for whom this particular policy initiative would be a dealbreaker, family policy now ostensibly being dictated by a public entity; there are some – admittedly a very few – who would opt instead for a different route of education and pursue either a private institution or else homeschooling.  The irony in this situation would be that a considerable amount of homeschooling is now done via cyberschool, in which case a separate computer might also have to be purchased for the student.

So, what to do?  Homeschooling isn’t an option here since we do find great value in public education, apart from the academics alone; although I’m annoyed from reading the letter that this program was taken on after considerable reflection by staff and faculty with no mention of parental involvement.  The best that we can do, if we’re to stay within the system, is to simply shoulder the burden of amending the house rules and continuing to uphold them as best we’re able.  In Middle’s case, the laptop will have to be used in common areas and out of the bedroom; free surfing will have to occur on the family computer as before and I’ll wind up having to check more often to assure that the technology isn’t being overused.  Youngest’s case is different however.  We’ve known that many more of his friends have unfettered access to the web, both in terms of their personal devices as well as parental oversight and we aren’t willing to provide him with a device despite what the school is now offering for the nascent middle-schoolers.  It’s bad enough that I’m now going to have to add one more piece of technology to the list, but adding another for Youngest is unacceptable>  What Youngest’s teacher did advise was that any device with a wireless capability would work, including a Nook HD or Amazon’s Kindle Fire and that presents an option; not that we’re going to purchase one for him but one for the family that could be taken to school during the day but would be returned to the kitchen upon returning home…in other words, mine.

This initiative isn’t something that’s going to break our relationship with the school district, and the simple truth is that it will probably be of value.  But it’s not an innocuous change and has a direct bearing upon how we’ve heretofore chosen to raise the kids and run the household.  There are plenty of other changes that school districts roll out and the cumulative effect of some of these programs has been to push parents into disaffection with the public system, sometimes to the extent that they simply withdraw their children and seek other educational alternatives.  I can intellectually understand their discomfort but there hasn’t been anything to date that has actually made me sit back and say hmmm… and while this one isn’t a dealbreaker, the understanding has now shifted from the academic and intellectual realm to that of the real world, the one that we inhabit each day.

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