Thanks to a surprise donation, Scobey Public Schools will have iPads for each of its students next school year.
"We got a call last Wednesday night saying they'd like to donate right away," Superintendent Dave Selvig said. "I just didn't believe it at first, but the next day, they came through."
The $130,000 donation came from Shale Exploration LLC, a Texas-based oil and gas exploration corporation with offices in Scobey that is working in North Dakota's Bakken oil fields.
Sam Tallis, Shale's president, and Sid Greehey, a fellow principal and majority stakeholder, were in Scobey on Monday to present the check.
They said they made the donation because they plan to be in the area for years to come and want to be more than just a company with an office in town.
"You can't tell someone you're going to be their long-term partner if you don't back it up," Tallis said. "A Bakken may last 25 to 30 years, but an education lasts a lifetime."
Selvig said the donation will pay for about 250 of the tablet computers for the district, which has about 260 students.
Produced by computer giant Apple, the iPad is a tablet computer with a touch screen. It is 9.5 inches by 7.3 inches and is one-half inch thick.
The tablets are Internet-ready and allow for interactive use through a variety of programs called apps.
Apple has sold more than 58 million iPads since launching them in 2010.
The donation accelerates Scobey's initiative to integrate technology into the classroom. The school board recently approved a plan to buy an iPad for each of its 29 teachers and planned to bring those into the classroom in fall 2012 before starting a push to provide one for each student in 2013.
"We've had an idea of what we wanted to do for a little while now," Selvig said. "But this really speeds things up. We've got a lot of planning to do."
In January, Apple announced a big push to incorporate the touch screen tablet computers into education across the country through two of its apps — iBooks 2, which allows for the use of interactive digital books, and iTunes U, which allows access to educational materials, including courses, lectures, quizzes, assignments and textbooks.
Many large textbook producers in the U.S. have signed on to provide content.
Selvig said that the variety of material available, especially in light of Apple's efforts, will provide a great supplement to what's already available in the classroom.
"There's so many apps out there for education," he said. "As we start phasing it in, there's just so much out there that we feel will really help the students."
Greehey said Shale, and his family, has made similar donations to schools in Texas and that, thanks to online and video capabilities, they provide opportunities not otherwise available.
"It allows you to use it in different ways," he said. "At one of the schools, we were able to go to a video conference for a meeting and the students watched a college lecture. You can't do that with a book."
They're not likely to replace all of the textbooks there — at least not within the next few years — but they could help the district save money on book costs. A textbook on the iPad costs about $15, while a hardcopy can run more than $75.
Madalyn Quinlan, the Montana Office of Public Instruction's chief of staff, said she's not aware of any other school districts in Montana that provide iPads for all of their students, although the office also does not track such numbers.
However, OPI recently debuted its own educational content on iTunes U, mostly geared toward educators.
"We have encouraged our staff to post information on iTunes U related to information from OPI, especially our initiatives," Quinlan said. "The audience for that isn't only students, but also staff. It's a great opportunity to provide information in an easily retrievable format on particular issues."
Providing the tablet computers to large numbers of students in a district isn't unheard of in the region. In Powell, Wyo., the school district was authorized in June 2011 to spend $977,000 on the purchase of 1,180 of them, one for each middle and high school student and three carts of 30 for each elementary school.
R.J. Kost, the Powell school district's curriculum coordinator, said the district started using the iPads in the schools last fall and, once the staff was able to show the kids "that it's a tool for education and not a toy," that the technology has provided a new way for students to learn interactively.
"Ideally, we want them to be used to increase educational knowledge and increase their ability to achieve in the 21st century," he said. "Not only will the use of the iPad help our students be more literate in the use of computers and access information, but hopefully they'll have a better background overall."
The biggest effort in Powell has been education on Internet etiquette and electronics usage to ensure everybody knows what's appropriate at school and how to be safe online.
Shale plans to open an office in Billings within the next few months and will hire between 25 and 40 people. Tallis said he hopes to set an example for other energy companies coming into the region.
"We're neighbors," he said. "We get involved, we work fair booths, we give our time and give money to charitable organizations. We hope that our actions induce other energy companies to do the same, to make a long-term commitment to the communities."
It'll be a busy spring and summer for the Scobey schools, with efforts to get teachers up to speed on incorporating the tablets in the classroom.
Officials are researching ways that other schools have done so and hope to bring in a professional development team to work with the staff. Selvig said the schools won't have to fix up much of the infrastructure, including high speed wireless Internet.
"It'll be a supplement at the start," he said. "It's going to be interesting to see where this goes. We think it'll excite our students a little more and that was part of the goal."