The e-mail landed recently in the inbox of former Maine Gov. Angus King.

It came from Jeff Mao, the state’s director of learning technology policy. He wrote to tell King that two old computers from Maine’s school laptop program – an iBook G3 from 2002 and a G4 circa 2006 – had just been “enthusiastically” accepted by the Maine State Museum as part of its permanent collection.

“I think this means we’ve all officially made history!” wrote Mao.

Indeed.

Ten years ago at this time, a task force appointed by King had just begun to get its collective head around what was a radical concept in public education: Provide each student and teacher from seventh grade on up with their own laptop computer and – voila! – watch Maine’s horizons expand.

Thanks to a $50 million surplus in the state’s general fund, the money was there.

Still, it was by no means an easy sell. the time the dust settled, the Legislature agreed only to fund laptops for seventh- and eighth-graders and deal with the high schools another day.

“I remember one legislator telling me at the time, ‘In my district, I’ve never seen an issue that stirred up this much controversy – on both sides,’ ” King said with a chuckle last week. “He said this is abortion, gay rights and clear-cutting, all rolled into one.”

Why so?

“I have never been able to fully answer that question,” King said. “I think it’s a very deep-seated fear of change.”

Fast forward to this week. As legions of Maine kids return to school with their state-of-the-art MacBooks at the ready, what was unimaginable to many Mainers only a decade ago is now the stuff of, well, a museum exhibit.

Laptops in the classroom? Who in their right minds wouldn’t consider that a good idea?

“Those kids are juniors in college now,” King said, referring to the first batch of seventh-graders to receive laptops, in 2002. “And I’m sure they can’t remember a time when they didn’t have a computer.”

We hear a lot, these politically charged days, about all the things state government does wrong. Well here’s something that, at least as far as the rest of the world is concerned, Maine did (and continues to do) right.

“Austria, Sweden, Canada, Australia, Singapore, Brunei, Malaysia, Israel,” King said, listing some of the countries that have come knocking in recent years to learn more about what educators around the world now call “The Maine Plan.”

“People in Maine aren’t aware of the reach of it,” King said.

Of course, international recognition, while flattering, isn’t the point. What truly matters is that in the eight years since the first students got their hands on the first shipment of laptops, Maine’s classrooms in fact have been transformed.

As of the beginning of this school year, according to Mao, 72,000 Apple MacBooks are in circulation throughout Maine’s middle and high schools. Roughly half of those – the ones used by seventh- and eighth-graders – are paid for by the state at an annual cost of $242 per laptop.

In addition, 66 high schools (55 percent of Maine’s total) now provide their students with laptops through a state-brokered deal with Apple. Participating high schools pay the same $242 per unit out of their local school budgets.

“It’s had a huge impact institutionally,” said Principal Ted Hall at Yarmouth High School, where the program expanded year by year with the original group of seventh-graders until, three years ago, it finally encompassed all of grades seven through 12.

The educational benefits, as Hall and virtually any other educator will tell you, are now obvious.

For starters, even the best written and produced textbook can’t hold a candle to an Internet-based research project.

King still remembers his statewide tour of seventh- and eighth-grade classrooms to sell the program back in 2000. While a team of Apple technicians handed out iBooks and hooked up a wireless signal, he’d pass out a photocopied excerpt from an eighth-grade history textbook on the Battle of Gettysburg.

“It was about four paragraphs, maybe six, with a line drawing of Pickett’s Charge,” King recalled. “Then I’d say, ‘OK, open your laptops.’“

The Gettysburg website that flashed on the screen was just the beginning. Linked to it were interactive maps on troop movements, actual battle reports, period newspaper clippings

“The one that always made my hair stand up was the Gettysburg Address in Lincoln’s own handwriting – you could even see where he changed things,” King said.

And how long would it take before the kids, lost in history, were no longer paying attention to the governor?

“About 10 minutes,” King said. “And then you could see the light bulbs go on in the audience in the back of the classroom – the parents, the teachers, the administrators, the school board members.”

Beyond the miracles of Internet access, the laptops are credited with a dramatic improvement in students’ writing skills.

A study in 2007 by the University of Southern Maine’s Education Policy Research Institute showed that only 29 percent of eighth-graders scored “proficient” in Maine Education Assessment writing tests back in 2000. 2005, three years after the laptops appeared, that number had surged to 49 percent.

Then there’s what Hall, the Yarmouth principal, calls the laptop’s impact on a school’s “culture.” An example: Where once student clubs relied on posters and word of mouth to publicize, say, a car wash or bake sale, they can now alert the entire school population via e-mail with a few simple keystrokes.

“It just makes everyone more connected,” Hall said. Hence when his counterparts at high schools without laptops ask him if they should take the plunge, “I say don’t look at it as ‘if.’ Look at it as ‘when.’ Just know that it’s going to happen eventually.”

King, who much to his credit started the ball rolling all those years ago, is the first to admit that his vision has yet to fully materialize.

Only with continued professional development for all of Maine’s teachers, he said, can each laptop truly become a Maine kid’s portal to a new and infinitely better education.

And only with political fortitude – King credits the Baldacci administration with protecting the relatively minuscule $10 million or so the state spends each year on the program – will the laptops survive these anything-but-easy times.

(The laptops, by the way, have survived just fine. Despite early fears that the kids would trash the computers, Mao reports, well under 1 percent have been lost or seriously damaged since the program began.)

But the dream – that laptops and all that comes with them will give Maine kids a leg up on their competition when they enter the global work force – lives on.

“My dream was always that there was some kid up in Madison who has this ability, but would never get to express it unless somebody put a tool in his hand,” King said.

Speaking of tools, back when King was still trying to convince people that Maine could put itself on the cutting edge of history, a legislator forwarded to King a letter he’d just received from a constituent.

“If the governor wants to help the kids in our town,” the man wrote, “then tell him to give each of them a chain saw.”

Don’t laugh. The Maine State Museum has chain saws, too.

“My response was that at least he understands it’s a tool,” King said. “The difference is, his tool tops out at $14 an hour. My tool tops out at Bill Gates.”

 

Columnist Bill Nemitz can be contacted at 791-6323 or at: [email protected]