Birmingham City Schools Laptop Initiative
Birmingham City Schools services a total of 26,500 students in 57 schools consisting of 29 elementary schools, 12 middle schools, 8 K-8 schools, 7 high schools, and one alternative school. The district is 80% economically disadvantaged and ethnicity breakdown is 97% black, 1% white, 2% Hispanic, and .2% Asian/pacific islander. Nine Board members that are elected by the city’s different districts govern the district.
Initiative and Importance
In late 2007, Birmingham mayor, Larry Langford, announced that every first through eighth grader in the Birmingham City schools would be provided an XO laptop. This would be the first large scale implementation of XO computers in the United States. In early 2008, Langford was given permission by the city council to purchase 15,000 XO laptops for distribution in the schools. The approved budget for this program was $3.5 million and was proposed to come from a fund that provided scholarships to high school seniors with a C-average or better. This budget would cover the $200 cost per XO laptop. The city also sought private donations. In February 2008 an additional $500,000 was added to the costs to make improvements for internet access. Langford also proposed the "Right Spot" initiative for Birmingham which would give local churches wireless internet.
In the laptop initiative the students would own the laptops and would be able to take them home. The school board hesitated at the offer and “said they had not been consulted on the program and had concerns about the district's ability to integrate the machines into instruction.”  Board member Dannetta K. Thornton Owens also had reservations about "stigmatizing Birmingham students with computers made for "poor" children". In April 2008, 1000 laptops were approved for a pilot program in Glen Iris elementary school. The outcome of this pilot would help the district to decide on accepting the other 14,000 laptops that were purchased. The first laptops arrived at Glen Iris on April 21, 2008. Tala Professional Services, who was hired to oversee the implementation, found the existing infrastructure in Glen Iris to be insufficient to support the computers. Improvements were made at a cost of $37,000. This gave a projected cost of $1.3 million for system wide implementation. On July 8, 2008, the school board voted to accept the remaining 14,000 laptops. During the summer of 2008 a workshop for the new computers was held at the Birmingham Public Library with a few students attending. An "XO eXpO" was also held in August to highlight the XO computers and early implementation experiences from Glen Iris.
By the end of the 2008/2009 school-year, laptops had been distributed to students up to sixth grade with a pilot running in seventh grade. The laptops are considered the students’ property and are utilized at home. Laptops are currently being purchased for next year’s first graders. Wireless networks are also being installed in Birmingham schools, and all schools will have wireless access by Fall 2009. Currently there is no scheduled district evaluation of the program, however University of Alabama at Birmingham has conducted small evaluations of the initiative.
Mayor Langford initially said that this program “will give many inner-city children their first access to a computer”and that "We live in a digital age, so it is important that all our children have equal access to technology and are able to integrate it into all aspects of their lives." Langford also referenced eliminating the 'digital divide'. Stan Mims, the district's superintendent said, "Our students will have access to global thinking now." This is a big step in a district that has a high poverty rate and is seeing declining enrollment. The laptops are a way of extending curriculum in the district and giving students exposure to current technology.
Follow this link to watch a video that outlines initial reactions about the implementation in Birmingham. Click Here
Successes and Problems
The biggest success that has resulted from the Birmingham City Schools laptop initiative is the student response. The students greatly enjoy working with the computers and have taken on a sense of ownership with the machines- “The kids love them.” The laptops are being integrated into the regular classroom curriculum and the students are responding positively. The open source software is helping to extend learning and motivate students. There has also been an increase in peer learning due to the laptops. One example of how the laptops are being used to extend learning is in the Glen Iris elementary school. This past year the school had a Scratch festival that focused on using the laptops to explore science concepts. Students worked in small groups to produce cartoons or commercials using Scratch that demonstrated a science concept. An independent panel then judged the projects.
While there were obstacles to overcome, and future hurdles, the school district is working hard to make sure the laptop initiative goes smoothly and carries its effectiveness in the future. The first major problem encountered in the project was distributing the laptops. Since the initiative was started on the city level, the school district had not prepared to handle the distribution of 15,000 laptops across the district. While this was a “big job”, the district was able to accomplish the first step of the initiative and overall it went well.
The next obstacle the district took on was teacher training. With the implementation of any new technology in schools, there will be teachers that are not comfortable. To make sure the laptops are used effectively, there needs to be a variety of training methods utilized to prepare teachers. Glen Iris elementary used federal money to hire consultants to help with their training. Teachers participated in focus groups, and received individual and group training. Across the district there was a large push to make sure teachers were ready and willing to use the laptops in their classrooms. 
While the XO computers do not need a wireless network to function, it can allow for more flexibility and enhance the use of computers. Initially the Birmingham schools were not wireless. Since the adoption of the XO computers schools are being converted for wireless capabilities. The first round of schools to receive a wireless network were chosen by Board members, however it is hoped that all schools in the Birmingham City schools will be wireless by Fall of 2009. The costs associated with this plan were not part of the initial laptop initiative. Becoming wireless is a push by the school district to make sure students can get the most out of the new technology.
Other problems that the district has encountered are software differences and laptop repair. Since the XOs open source software is not usually found on PCs and Macs, teachers and students are getting use to using the new programs. This has been a minor problem, however it does create more of a stretch to integrate the computers into the curriculum. Also since the laptops belong to the children, there are the inevitable repairs that will need to happen. As of right now repairs are handled locally. Some of the repairs can be costly, which adds a greater expenditure for the school district.
Overall the Birmingham Schools initiative is proving to be a success. While the implementation had hurdles such as distribution, teacher training, and inadequate infrastructure, the laptops are now in the classrooms. The greatest response has been from the students who now have access to their own computer. Open source software is used to extend learning and help prepare students for the future, while keeping operating cost at a minimum for the district. With an emphasis on staff training, schools have developed teachers that are able to effectively use the machines and implement them in the classroom. With continual training, teachers will become more proficient with the machines. It appears that the Birmingham initiative has forward momentum and will continue to provide students with tools they need.
- Wilson, Dr. Michael, Principal Glen Iris elementary. (Phone interview, June 25, 2009)
- Moxley,B. IT Department BCS. (Phone interview, June 25, 2009)