If you were scouring Illinois for the community that best represented the future of education, you'd probably start in a wealthy north suburb like Highland Park or Lake Forest, not in Arcola.
But the Douglas County community 35 miles south of Champaign — population 3,000, a school district 37 percent Hispanic along with some Amish, students who are 40 percent low-income and high school composite ACT scores below the state average — wants to be an education role model.
It begins with a campaign to raise $530,000 in private funds so that every one of the approximately 800 students in the Arcola school district — from kindergartners to seniors in high school — gets an iPad they can use for work in school and at home. And those iPads will be equipped with a supplemental instructional program called eSpark that gives students access to hundreds of educational applications.
Building off the nickname of the high school's successful sports teams — the Purple Riders — the campaign is called "Riding Innovation to Excellence."
Already, about $180,000 has been collected, according to Tim Monahan, one of the leaders of the fundraising effort.
"We're still the third-winningest football team in the state and there's no reason we can't be number one in academics," Monahan said. "We're used to being winners."
To be honest, there's a ways to go with that, based on the school district's most recent report card.
But Arcola school officials and residents believe they're onto something with a program that is known as one-to-one digital learning.
"I am 100 percent behind it," said Arcola school board member Robert Arrol. "I've seen it in other schools and I've seen it in our pilot here and the kids get immediately wrapped up in it. I think it's the wave of the future."
There are other school districts in Illinois that have equipped many of their students with computer tablets, Monahan said, but none that he knows of has included all students.
"I think we're trying to be the best school district in the area. And kids coming out of Arcola, number one, they will have 13 years of education in using a computer," Monahan said. "We're starting in kindergarten. No other school I know of is doing that. Some are starting at third grade but as many of you know, you put a 4-year-old on a computer and they'll show you how to run it."
Arcola's pilot program, which started about six weeks ago, includes two second-grade classrooms, a fourth-grade class and a smattering of high school students. Preliminary results are encouraging, school officials say, and so the school board voted last week to adopt the one-to-one program district-wide.
"It's about classroom efficiency and being able to maximize every minute we have in the classroom," said Superintendent Tom Mulligan. "There are hundreds and hundreds of examples of efficiency that this type of learning allows you."
In Brianne Eads' second-grade classroom, she projects a subtraction problem on a screen, then asks students to do the math on their tablets and type in the answer. Seconds later, she sees all their answers on her tablet, congratulates those who got it right and knows which ones didn't. Later, they'll get help from her in a small group.
"Teachers still teach classrooms. Teachers still facilitate, instruct and have activities going on in the classroom," Mulligan said. "But this is a supplement that we use for 30 to 45 minutes a day. It takes the assessment results for each individual child and it designs a series of apps that kids have in order to work on skills where they need help.
"The kids get on and work through the series of apps that are games, educational games. The kids don't even know they're learning and they love it."
All of the approximately 65 teachers in the school district are onboard with the new learning concept, Mulligan said.
"There are some who are scared," he said. "But we've told them that this is a tool and when you think it's appropriate to use it, you're going to use it. We'll support you. Yes, you raise the bar of people but you have to support them. Otherwise, it fails."
Mulligan acknowledges the district's low achievement scores, but sees this as the fix.
"This one-to-one technology is a game-changer," he said. "I don't care if these kids don't have Internet access at home. It doesn't matter. They can download everything they need here at school and send it home with them."
Eventually, he said, students won't have textbooks. Everything they need will be on the tablet, which, incidentally, comes wrapped in a thick, protective case.
"Every kid we have in our schools has grown up with this. This is their way of life and, in my opinion, for too long schools have not caught up to the kids' way of life and the way kids learn," Mulligan said. "This allows us to get on a level playing field with society. We're preparing people to go out into a society where all they're going to use is technology. Why are we not embedding everything we do with technology to prepare them?"
Tom Kacich is a News-Gazette editor and columnist. His column appears on Sundays and Wednesdays. He can be reached at 217-351-5221 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.