By Ryan Cornell
WINCHESTER -- When sixth grade students in Frederick County public schools return to the classrooms in August, they'll be greeted by shiny new Chromebook computers.
Division Superintendent David Sovine announced the 1:1 Chromebook Initiative at a School Board meeting Tuesday night. The initiative is a four-year plan to provide every student in the school system from grades three through 12 with a Chromebook, beginning with sixth graders this fall.
Chromebooks are web-based laptop computers powered by the Google Chrome operating system. They're especially popular for use in schools -- middle and high schools in Shenandoah County use them -- because of their inexpensive price compared to other laptops, resistance to computer viruses and battery lives lasting between six to eight hours.
Earlier this year, several pilot programs in the division's elementary, middle and high schools tested the concept of students using Chromebooks.
Sovine said the programs showed that Chromebooks were a useful tool in enhancing student learning and engagement. He said one group of fifth graders at Orchard View Elementary used the Chromebooks to edit each others' writing, while the teacher was able to monitor them and provide feedback as they were writing.
"The level of excitement and engagement in terms of utilizing the Chromebooks in our pilot programs has just been off-the-charts exceptional," he said.
The School Board also held a full-day training session this spring, where teachers learned how to supplement their instruction with the computers and watched videos of students using Chromebooks during the pilot program.
"To hear the excitement in their voices and their passion for learning," Sovine said. "Some of the students that were not excited about learning, they were talking about for the first time how they really enjoy the learning process, and the teachers talk about how students have blossomed through utilizing the technology as a tool."
He said students in high school technology classes have already begun developing math apps on the Chromebooks that can be used in fifth grade classrooms.
A release from the division states that teachers will not be expected to use the Chromebooks every day. The Chromebooks will be kept at school initially, it states, but the goal will be to allow students to eventually take them home.
The 1:1 Chromebook Initiative is supported through funds currently in the Information Technology Department's budget, which would have been used to replace workstation inventory.
Following its regular meeting, the School Board met for a budget work session and unanimously approved its fiscal 2015 budget.
The approved budget totals $175.5 million, which includes a capital project fund of $2.2 million, a debt service fund of $15.8 million and a school operating fund of $140.5 million.
The $140.5 million school operating fund is about $6.5 million more than the current year's operating fund. Additions to next year's budgetary expenses include an increase in the Virginia Retirement System rates paid by the employer, the implementation of a full-day kindergarten program starting this fall and $1.1 million for a "contingency reserve."
The money in the contingency reserve could potentially be used for salary increases for school employees depending on how much education funding is allocated from the state, according to the school board.
A salary increase for division staff of 1 percent would cost about $1 million.
Contact staff writer Ryan Cornell at 540-465-5137 ext. 164, or firstname.lastname@example.org