ZEELAND, Mich -- As students walk through the halls of high school here, their backpacks are a little lighter.
Stacks of paper and some textbooks have been replaced by an Apple iPad — one for every high-schooler in the district. That's 1,800 iPads between two high schools in the district.
And it's just the beginning for Zeeland Public Schools, which embarked on an ambitious project this fall that will give a tablet to every student in grades 3 to 12 — the only district this state to do so.
The program represents one of the most aggressive in the country. The school uses the iPad for assigning classwork, testing and communicating with students. Some teachers have gone paperless.
Just two weeks into the experiment, administrators already are calling the iPad program a game-changer.
"They think technology now — live, breathe and eat it," said John Holwerda, assistant principal at Zeeland West High School. "We're coming to their world, instead of them coming to ours."
Carl Howe, research director at Boston-based Yankee Group, a technology advisory firm, said: "What you're seeing here is the evolution of education past the PC era."
'It's all in our iPad'
In Brandy Navetta's freshman literature class, her students follow along as a narrator reads from The Scarlet Ibis, the short story by James Hurst.
"What's unique about Doodle?" Navetta asked about the narrator's sickly little brother.
Freshman Tyler Johnson takes his index finger and highlights a passage in the e-book on his Apple iPad, turning it yellow.
"He seemed all head, with a tiny body that was red and shriveled like an old man's."
For Navetta, the iPad program at Zeeland schools has allowed students to participate more directly in the instruction. It also has allowed her to focus more time on teaching and less on management tasks.
Last week, her class used an iPad app to study from flash cards for a quiz on literary terms. The iPad saves classroom time that would have been spent making flash cards by hand, she said.
"Now we can spend more time doing critical thinking — applying those terms on those flash cards," Navetta said.
And students use collaborative iPad apps to help coach each other toward finding the correct answer, she said.
The students, who are able to bring the iPads home and use them there as they please, have taken to the new devices easily, administrators said.
"It's helped us become more organized," freshman Nick Jasch said. "We're not losing papers. It's all in our iPad."
Lessons on video
Administrators view the iPad program as an experiment in educating today's students for the technology-dependent world they'll graduate into.
The $1.3 million for the program comes from a $20 million bond issue voters approved last year for school improvements, Superintendent Dave Berry said.
Two weeks in, teachers are just starting to explore the myriad ways they can leverage the iPad platform.
Some have recorded entire lessons on video, making the lessons available to students when the teacher is out of the building -- a step that avoids a day of lost instruction. If a student misses a day of class, he or she can use the iPad to see what was missed and download the assignments at home over Wi-Fi.
While at school, students are limited on what Web sites they can access. Filters block Facebook. Skype and Twitter are not blocked.
At home, the students can be limited by controls parents place.
Without a physical keyboard, it can be cumbersome to type long papers on the device using just the touch screen. Printing from the devices also is limited, especially at home.
Middle-schoolers will get iPads in the winter. When grades 3 to 5 get iPads next fall, the devices will be kept in the classroom. Students in kindergarten through second grade will have access to a cart of the iPads next fall.
The district has insured the iPads. Six iPads were reported broken in the first two weeks of the program, said Stephen Braunius, director of instructional technology. None have been reported lost or stolen.
Schools watching Zeeland
Although the iPads can become an occasional distraction — a student last week traipsed through the halls playing Angry Birds— teachers say it's no worse than other low-tech distractions.
Apple does not offer districts bulk discounts on the iPad. The district pays a slightly reduced education price for the tablets — the same price that any individual student or educator would pay for just one iPad. Apple does offer savings in bundled software for the devices, Braunius said.
The iPads have been particularly attractive to districts because of their ease of use and adaptability to students of all grades and learning abilities, said Carl Howe, research director at Boston-based Yankee Group.
"There's something very magnetic about the experience," Howe said. "For anyone who is at all uncertain about technology, it removes that barrier between you and the technology."