HOOKSETT — On the first day of school, when Hooksett kids fill their backpacks with fresh notebooks, pencils and the latest academic accessories, some also will be tucking in their laptops, tablets and smart phones.
The Bring Your Own Device program (BYOD), which lets kids bring their personal wireless equipment to school, starts this fall after a year of conversation and controversy.
While second-, fifth- and sixth-grade students were testing BYOD in last year's pilot program, parents and school officials were asking questions, signing petitions, trading accusations and calling for resignations.
“It was very divided on the board and I think it made Hooksett look kind of bad,” said parent Kim Kahn.
It's no surprise Kahn was a little disappointed. She has three kids in Hooksett schools and she's invested four years in the Memorial School PTA. She knows teachers and principals and has respect for the ideas and energy they bring to the school system, she said.
For Kahn and others, it has been tough to watch the Hooksett School Board and administration clash.
In September of 2011, shortly after the BYOD pilot program was announced, James Molony created an online petition asking school administrators to delay starting the program so parents, principals and teachers would have time to discuss the details.
Molony and other parents wanted to know more about how kids would be using iPads and smart phones in class. They also raised questions about teacher training, tech support and security.
Last March, newly elected School Board member David Pearl began asking questions.
“To me, the saddest things is, as a board, we never had any deliberation about BYOD,” said Pearl, who pushed the board to hold a parent forum before officially adopting the program. But scheduling problems didn't allow any time for a community-wide debate.
“They just opened up this program and said we'll see what happens,” said Pearl. “And that's irresponsible.”
Pearl felt parents were cut out of the discussion and the school board was neglecting its responsibility to listen to the people who elected them. Last month, he suggested that board Chairman Dana Argo might want to consider resigning.
Since then, a public forum on BYOD has been scheduled for 6:30 p.m. on Sept. 4, at the Cawley School cafeteria. The following week, the Cawley School will host a BYOD information night on Sept. 10, Memorial School will hold an information night on Sept. 12 and Underhill School will have its own meeting on Sept. 13.
Argo said the board has been openly discussing BYOD at its meetings for the past year.
“We had the pilot program, we sent out surveys, we evaluated it, there were discussions among board members and presentations,” said Argo who added that all of the feedback the board has received on BYOD has been positive.
“We felt the fact that the public forum didn't occur yet shouldn't hold up the program,” he said.
Kahn's three children participated in the BYOD pilot program last year.
“I had a second-grader and two fifth-graders in BYOD, and, honestly, I liked it,” she said.
“When they started the pilot program, I thought they were very open,” said Kahn, adding that parents and kids all signed letters agreeing to certain requirements and rules.
Kahn said that the concern came up repeatedly at meetings was the idea that teachers were in school to teach, and iPods and laptops should not replace traditional classroom activities and learning. But Argo stressed that BYOD is meant to enhance, not replace, traditional teaching methods. And participation is optional.
“Parents are told not to go out and buy devices for this program,” he said. “It's voluntary and kids who don't have a device will be given school equipment to use.”
But Pearl said there are still a lot of unanswered questions.
“There's been no information about the educational benefits of BYOD presented to the board,” said Pearl. “There has to be an educational benefit to the student.”
Pearl added there are also questions about technical issues, safety concerns and rules on the use of personal tech devices in the classroom.
So many questions that Pearl started emailing them to colleagues on the board and to administrators. And that led to a charge from Argo that Pearl was harassing the board with email.
That latest conflict has led the school board, whose members say their charge is to advocate for 21st century education, to bar the use of email for official school board communications. It's also led to Pearl consulting a lawyer about the charge of harassment, a charge he said he takes seriously.
Pearl said Hooksett parents have been very supportive and have told him to continue challenging the school board on BYOD and the need to be more open and transparent in their policy-making. But others point out that the more time the board spends on political and personal battles, the less time they spend on educational issues.
“There's a lot of posturing and talk about 21st century education and being cutting-edge,” said Pearl. “I think we need to get some standards in place and uphold them.”