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Article updated: 2/19/2013 4:21 PM

E. Aurora schools will update technology with grant

By Marie Wilson

Personal laptops will serve as educational tools next year for 750 students in East Aurora District 131's Fred Rodgers Magnet Academy, allowing them to enhance their learning in science, technology, engineering and math, school officials said Tuesday.

"When you put technology into students' hands, they are going to excel, they are going to do great," said Annette Johnson, school board president. "Unfortunately, in District 131, many of our students can't afford that technology."

A $660,000 grant from the Dunham Fund changes the game, she said. The funding will allow the district to buy an age-appropriate laptop for each magnet academy student.

"I truly, truly believe that this is going to change the direction of East Aurora schools," Johnson said.

High school students will receive tablet-style laptops, seventh- and eighth-grade students will be given MacBook Pros, and netbooks will go to students in elementary grades, all in an effort to boost technological literacy among gifted students.

Students will be allowed to bring their laptops home and will be expected to return them to school fully charged, said Angela Rowley, principal of the magnet academy, which moves in August to the Fred Rodgers Community Center formerly owned by the city. Those in a technology pilot program have adjusted well to using their laptops for research, reading and studying instead of games.

"The technology becomes a tool and not a toy," Rowley said. "The learning has really become fun because they can experience a topic that's interesting to them deeper and deeper."

Magnet academy eighth-grader Oscar Miranda said the laptop he was given through the pilot program has allowed him to take an online biology class that will prepare him to apply to the Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy in Aurora.

"It has changed my life and made learning even more exciting," Oscar said.

District 131 Superintendent Jerome Roberts said the life-changing potential of the laptops extends to parents of magnet academy students, who can use the technology to access social services, job searches and more.

While 92 percent of the 75 students in the middle school magnet academy said in a survey they have a computer at home, 80 percent said they are able to use their home computer less than once a month. As part of the laptop initiative, the district has partnered with Comcast, which will offer discounted Internet service to low-income district families for $9.95 a month.

"This grant extends not only to the students who will receive the latest technology," Roberts said. "It's an investment in the city of Aurora."

The nonprofit OnLight Aurora has provided the magnet academy with high-speed Internet to handle hundreds of students online at once, and the entire initiative is an instance of cooperation toward a shared goal, Aurora Mayor Tom Weisner said.

"It's another wonderful, sterling example of collaboration in our community ... working together to improve education, improve opportunities for all of our young people," he said.

Mark Truemper, a member of the Dunham Fund's board of directors, said the charity chose to fund the laptops to help the district strengthen its focus on science, technology, engineering and math education, since those disciplines represent the future.

He challenged the district to provide personal laptops for all 13,000 students instead of only those enrolled in the magnet academy, and Johnson said the district aims to do just that. Two recently hired grant writers will focus on seeking money for additional technology and the district will continue to build community support through its educational foundation.

"This is the best use of funds we could ever come up with," Truemper said about the $660,000 grant. "That we could have an impact on 750 students and their families is something we haven't been able to accomplish in all of our grants."

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