Marcus Vazquez, center, helps Terrence Tunnock set up a digital device during freshman orientation at Archbishop Stepinac High School in White Plains, N.Y., on Sept. 5, 2013. The school, which has over 800 students this year, is dropping all textbooks in favor of a "digital library" that students will use with tablets and laptops in class.(Photo: Matthew Brown, The (Westchester County, N.Y.) Journal News)
WHITE PLAINS, N.Y. - Out of curiosity, Nicholas Dadario weighed his backpack last year when it was filled with textbooks for his high school freshman honors classes at Archbishop Stepinac High School.
It weighed 35 pounds.
That backpack is going to be much lighter this year. Stepinac in White Plains has become one of the first high schools in the country to drop all textbooks like dead weight and replace them with a "digital library." When students started classes Monday, they were zipping to an app or website on their tablet or laptop and had instant access to all 40 texts in the Stepinac curriculum, not to mention all sorts of note-taking, highlighting and interactive features.
"It's not only lighter, but you're mobile," said Dadario, 15. "You can bring your computer to your friend's house, wherever, and you're all set."
It's a given that everything in K-12 education is going digital. But Stepinac, a Roman Catholic school for boys, is out in front when it comes to letting go of expensive, heavy, environmentally unfriendly and instantly outdated books in favor of video review lessons for calculus and Latin stories that can be read out loud.
Stepinac officials worked for a year with Pearson, the education company that has long dominated the textbook world, to design and create a unique digital library that is bound to be studied by other private and public schools.
"No one else in the country has this," Lisa Alfasi, an account manager at Pearson who led the project, told teachers last week as they sat down for training.
Indeed, Dennis Lauro, executive director of the Lower Hudson Regional Information Center, which provides technical support to public schools in Westchester, Rockland and Putnam counties in New York, said that neither he nor his colleagues across the state were aware of a similar digital effort in a public school setting.
"This is the wave of the future," Lauro said. "I'm not surprised that a private school would beat the public schools to it. They have the ability to just do it. There is so much politics involved in the public schools when it comes to a move like that, needing approval from boards and committees. There will be a lot of interest in what Stepinac is doing."
For the Rev. Tom Collins, Stepinac's president, the commitment to digital source material was not a difficult a decision. For one thing, student access to the library may actually be cheaper, given the economics of private schools.
In the past, students' families had to spend up to $700 a year on textbooks. This year - after the one-time purchase of a tablet or laptop - families have to pay $150 for access to the digital library.
Additionally, Collins said, we've reached a point in time when high school graduates need to be two things: bilingual and technically savvy.
"I know this will sweep the country," he said. "If we can be at the genesis level, the beginning, I can say that we are preparing every student for college."
Using the digital library is almost as easy as cracking open a new book (as long as your Internet connection is on). A student can almost instantly tap into a global studies digital book and open an interactive map of Egypt or a speech by President John F. Kennedy about the Cuban Missile Crisis or a PBS documentary about Iran's disputed presidential election of 2009.
"Students can search for what they want, just like with Google, so now we can teach them to interpret and analyze the information," said Matthew Hogan, social studies chairperson.
A teacher can show a page from a digital book on an interactive whiteboard at the front of the class or send students a link to a particular math problem, with the teacher's notes added in.
Pearson also provided Stepinac with numerous digital resources other than the library. One website, for instance, will grade student essays not only for grammar and sentence structure but also for repeating ideas too frequently. It then suggests re-writes.
"There is so much here, you can go through it all day," said Nancy Bisogno, the English chairwoman.
The first few weeks may bring some challenges.
Stepinac officials expect to encounter some parental discomfort over dropping books with spines. They recognize there may be technical glitches at first. And they will have to encourage students to leave space-eating photos and music off their tablets - and to keep their devices charged.
"These things will get worked out," Collins said.
There was one catch when it comes to developing the digital library for Stepinac. Pearson does not produce religious materials. So Stepinac had to contract with a Catholic publishing company to obtain PDF downloads for religion classes that students will also find on their tablets and laptops.
Generally, teachers and students were excited to try something that high schools haven't seen.
Daniel Negron, 14, a sophomore from Hartsdale, said that the digital library offers a lot of promise for the many Stepinac students who arrive home exhausted from sports practice or other activities.
"It reads to you," he said. "Listening to a book might not be the worst thing in the world."