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Posted on Thu, Oct 27, 2011 : 5:59 a.m.

From tests to textbooks, Washtenaw County's schools move toward going paperless

By Janet Miller

The days of No. 2 pencils, the hum of the school office copy machine and heavy books jammed into backpacks are waning.

Washtenaw County schools are moving into the digital age, leaving paper and pencil and the 20th century behind.

Textbooks have given way to laptop computers, boards of education are going paperless, districts are administering paperless tests and report cards appear on-line rather than in thin envelopes. Weekly packets sent home to parents are often empty. And alerts about school issues -- from head lice to stranger danger -- are being fanned out over the Internet.

But school districts -- even schools within the same district -- are moving at different speeds toward a paperless operation.


Dr. David DeYoung, principal at Ann Arbor's Wines Elementary School, writes an email to parents of students. Wines, which has gone nearly paperless, has saved more than $5,000 in paper costs in just one year.

Joseph Tobianski I

Arbor Preparatory, the charter high school that opened in Ypsilanti Township this fall, is nearly paperless, said Principal Matthew Hudson. The 167 students were given Dell netbooks instead of textbooks, a move that saved thousands of dollars, he said. The school is run by PrepNet, a network of public charter high schools in Michigan that is affiliated with National Heritage Academies.

Textbooks, on average, cost $120 a piece and each student would need six of them, Hudson said. The netbooks cost between $350 and $400 each, Hudson said, plus the cost of online access to the textbook material. There is a classroom set of each textbook.

There are other benefits beside financial, he said. A paperless school is more environmentally friendly and it’s easier for students. “They can’t lose their homework or leave it at home,” Hudson said.

All assignments and homework at Arbor Preparatory are paperless, with staff using Moodle, the software platform where teachers can manage assignments, discussion, the school calendar, grading and more on-line. Most correspondence with parents is done on-line, Hudson said.

The school has only one copy machine, and Hudson would like to see that used even less. He wants to move toward on-line test taking, but first security issues must be addressed, he said.

In the Ann Arbor School District, some schools are going paperless quicker than others, but all of them are moving in that direction, said Liz Margolis, director of communications.

Wines Elementary School has been nearly paperless since last school year, said Principal David DeYoung. “It’s more efficient, it’s more a 21st century way of doing things.”

And it fosters communication. Instead of sending an occasional note home to families, DeYoung now sends a weekly email.

And it saves money. Wines saved more than $5,000 in paper costs in just one year.

Teachers are sending classroom newsletters home and confirm appointments with parents via the computer. The school’s monthly newsletter, which used more 4,000 sheets of paper every school year, is now sent electronically.

There are district-wide efforts, Margolis said. The district’s back-to-school book, which historically was mailed to 16,000 families, this year for the first time was sent electronically, Margolis said.

Community, Huron and Ann Arbor Technological high schools’ back-to-school books were also sent over the Internet, while Pioneer and Skyline will follow suit next year. The district saved about $5,000 with the paperless back-to-school books, Margolis said. Families without Internet access receive paper copies.

PowerSchool is the district’s data system, used by parents and students to check grades and assignments and to take attendance. Instead of mailing home quarterly reports, grades are now accessed on the Internet. The annual cost of PowerSchool is $77,000.

Schoolmessenger is the communication tool the district uses to send notes home to families. “It eliminate the need for a hard copy fan out,” Margolis said.

When there was a potential stalker near Burns Park School recently, an email was sent instead of stuffing backpacks with paper fliers. Notices about MEAP testing, school picture day or the balance on a student lunch account are sent electronically.

Test taking is also going green. There were no bubbles to fill in when elementary students took the new MAP (Measures of Academic Progress) test this fall. It was all done on computer.

The Ann Arbor Board of Education may be going paperless soon.

The board is considering paperless board packets through BoardDocs, an Internet solution that allows board agendas, backup materials, real-time voting and minutes to be posted on the Internet. It adds transparency, said Trustee Andy Thomas, because the public would be able to easily access the information.

Going paperless doesn’t always save money. BoardDocs would end up costing the district roughly $4,000 a year more, said Amy Osinski, executive assistant. It costs about $5,000 a year to produce and deliver the board packets, while BoardDocs would cost $9,000. The board is expected to BoardDocs at its Nov. 16 meeting.

Nationwide, schools are moving toward being green. Schools are joining the e-book bandwagon, said Marlene Nesary, International Society for Technology in Education, but progress hinges on state laws that allow -- or prohibit -- districts from using funds from textbook budgets on technology. Texas, for example, allows flexibility, she said.


K Thompson

Fri, Oct 28, 2011 : 1:24 a.m.

PLEASE do NOT say this is a Green solution. Paperless, yes. But do not forget about the coal & nuclear energy that powers all these computers that have to be pkugged in every day = Not Green.

E. Daniel Ayres

Thu, Oct 27, 2011 : 7:46 p.m.

What happens when the power goes out? At least with a book you can read during the daylight hours.

Jake C

Fri, Oct 28, 2011 : 4:51 a.m.

Most laptops and tablet computers have batteries... What do you do with the power out when it's night?

the leprachaun

Thu, Oct 27, 2011 : 7:11 p.m.

I don't like do homework with online books i rather have the text book right in front of me

Jake C

Fri, Oct 28, 2011 : 4:50 a.m.

That's nice, how old are you and what textbooks are you being forced to buy electronically?


Thu, Oct 27, 2011 : 6:37 p.m.

The Ann Arbor area has many companies that print books. The book printing industry employes over 3000 people in the area and sales in total average $250 million annually. (shrinking every year!) Seems to me Ann Arbor would want to maintain the use of books. But the true reality is that the book printing industry is slowly going the way of the buggy whip!


Thu, Oct 27, 2011 : 3:22 p.m.

How many kids are given papers to take home to their parents but end up carrying them in their backpacks for days? Electronically communicating with the parents also ensures that parents get the messages in a timely manner.


Thu, Oct 27, 2011 : 2:42 p.m.

Ours leaves the textbooks at school and does the homework on line using the textbook that IS on line. Go figure. I think the history book is also on line. Not sure. Great idea and less damage to children and their backs. By the way, Power School is the best thing next to chocolate.


Thu, Oct 27, 2011 : 2:25 p.m.

It seems that many educators are ignoring research that shows the importance of the eye-brain-hand-paper connection. My husband taught Humanities at a local university, and had the students submit one handwritten paper each term. He found that the students wrote better papers that way, with far fewer mistakes of grammar, and the papers showed more signs of having been edited with better thought processes as well. All this in spite of the ease of editing on a computer! Sometimes "easier" does not get the best results.

Jake C

Thu, Oct 27, 2011 : 2:58 p.m.

What does that have to do with the article? Most of the "paperless" changes in this article are regarding simple day-to-day communications between staff, administrators, and parents. Just because a report card or a text book is given in an electronic format doesn't mean that students are being forced to write their papers on keyboards instead of handwriting.

Jake C

Thu, Oct 27, 2011 : 2:18 p.m.

With stories like these, I always wonder how many people actually read the article before commenting. Like the article says, going "paperless" at most schools (especially at the Elementary level) just means that most communication among the administration & staff and much of the back-end work are done electronically. And that basic communication with parents (like bus schedules, behavior reports, etc) is usually done by email, which most parents actually prefer. And in the rare cases where parents don't have a computer (like the back-to-school packets example) paper copies are sent instead. I can guarantee you that the classrooms at Wines Elementary still have lots and lots of paper in the classrooms, and teachers actually interact with the children instead of sitting them in front of a computer for 7 hours a day. Private & Charter schools like Arbor Prep are allowed to go as paper-less or technology-less as they want, so if you're a parent go ahead and pick whichever one you think will suit your child (and your budget) the best, and don't worry about the other ones.

Jake C

Fri, Oct 28, 2011 : 4:49 a.m.

What's your source for that Floyd? What schools are you talking about? Yes, most schools have had a "computer room" since the mid-80s, which hasn't resulted in any displaced teachers at the expense of "babysitters watching kids in front of computer screens".


Thu, Oct 27, 2011 : 4:03 p.m.

Whole teacher positions at the big schools have recently been converted to jobs where the "teachers" are administering rooms filled with kids in front of computer screens. Guess who's at the computers? Poor and minority kids. These are the remedial classrooms of the future. Your kid at Wines will soon have an opportunity for such "education" at Forsythe.

Snehal Shah

Thu, Oct 27, 2011 : 1:44 p.m.

There goes the excuse of "Dog ate my homework!!!!" The new generation will say," Sorry, I cannot write, I can only type." Job ads will explicitly say,"Writing skills highly desirable!" today we get scriptures engraved in stones from ancient civilization. When we get extinct, the new age generation will get burned out hard disks and will not know what that is. maybe someone will use it as a God and start a new religion! Everything digital, everything virtual then what is real? Hundreds of years in calligraphy which even heklped Steve Jobs to improve his products and the same products taking away the very skill! What an irony of life! It is really a pity to see that education is being turned in to fast food kind of business. Everybody has to follow the prototype. No longer unique individuals with unique skills. Can anybody explain to kindergartners as to why should they learn to write when their whole life they will be doing is typing? Or is the plan to teach typing instead of writing in Kindergarten?


Thu, Oct 27, 2011 : 2:44 p.m.

Should see ours handwriting. Boy is it bad. I hate to say it, but with the techno age? The next thing to say is Steve Jobs ate my homework. I've seen on line crashes that make one cringe.


Thu, Oct 27, 2011 : 1:01 p.m.

Thank Goodness we have the Lottery to FUND these expensive programs! (Remember that was its purpose)


Thu, Oct 27, 2011 : 12:32 p.m.

Do the teachers check the homework or does the computer program check the homework? If it is the latter that should be the end of teachers whining about how "hard" they work and how much time they put in. I should see a drop in school taxes right? Will we in the future be negotiating with PrepNet. Will they go on strike and refuse to provide the program and hold us hostage?

Jake C

Thu, Oct 27, 2011 : 2:27 p.m.

PrepNet is an entity that serves Charter Schools, not Public Schools. Yes, public money goes to Charter schools, but if they choose to spend that money on PrepNet and IPads instead of hiring more teachers or art classes, that's their choice. And it's also your choice to send your child to that school or not.


Thu, Oct 27, 2011 : 12:30 p.m.

IMO, I also like the trend toward going paperless at our schools. I have appreciated the reduction in paper these past few years. I look forward to the day when the textbooks are replaced with laptops or netbooks for the kids. Textbooks in middle school, and especially in high school are quite heavy. This is a challenge for kids to carry to and from school, in a backpack, while walking or riding their bike.

Wolf's Bane

Thu, Oct 27, 2011 : 12:15 p.m.

This is great news for city named after Ann's Arbor


Thu, Oct 27, 2011 : 11:54 a.m.

Pretty soon you won't need the teachers!! Kids can do all of their school work @ home.

K Thompson

Fri, Oct 28, 2011 : 1:20 a.m.

This implies there is no need for instruction or human interaction. Not realistic or understanding of the learning process.


Thu, Oct 27, 2011 : 2:45 p.m.

Most children ARE doing their homework and their classwork on line. I know a few 10th graders who are in school 4 hours a day and do the rest at home. So, no surprise there.


Thu, Oct 27, 2011 : 11:52 a.m.

What if a family can't afford a computer,or they have more than one child that needs to use it at a time?

Barb's Mom

Fri, Oct 28, 2011 : 12:45 a.m.

At jns131 I've heard of a library also but I thought you were limited to 30 mins on the computer if people are waiting. How is a student supposed to do homework for 6 classes in 30 minutes?


Thu, Oct 27, 2011 : 2:46 p.m.

I heard a new invention called a library. Might want to check one out?


Thu, Oct 27, 2011 : 11:45 a.m.

I know text books are a huge expense for schools but I do have concerns with schools moving just to online versions. Some children really benefit from having a physical text book in front of them to help focus. Physical learners benefit from physically turning the pages and it is easier to follow the logic or pathway of content (e.g. math progression) when you actually flip the pages. I know a child who "opted" for the online book over a real text book. He did every assignment but his grades were terrible. His grades rose only after he started using a text book at home. His mother said the online version just didn't make sense or sink in, but the physical book did. That doesn't mean some kids don't do perfectly well with an online text; the schools just need to still have some actual texts for students who prefer them. And relying increasingly on online learning resources is a problem for families with *only* one computer. If all three of my kids needed to share our one computer for all their homework, they would have to be up far too late to get their turns. On the positive side, getting all those school notifications/announcements over email and online is a HUGE improvement.

Al Feldt

Thu, Oct 27, 2011 : 11:33 a.m.

The question of differential use by different social classes is important and must be addressed. But perhaps the best way to handle it in the long run is to make a special effort to get non-internet families onto the internet thereby opening the entire household to a broader, more socially connected, and more literate life style. It will not work in every situation and those will have to be handled with old fashioned home visits, parent teacher meetings, paper reports and notes, etc. But for those families that accept and use the internet as part of their child's educational experience will be educated and transformed along with their children. Meanwhile, the ready availability of lower cost, up to date e-textbooks that students don't have to lug back and forth to school will gradually reduce school and family budgets significantly allowing more for teachers, advisors, and even more arts and sports programs.

Dr. I. Emsayin

Thu, Oct 27, 2011 : 1:13 p.m.

I applaud the day when AAPS moves toward more arts, teacher advisors, and time for affective education. However, I fear that more and more of the non-testable aspects of education will disappear with budget cuts. The Forum teachers at Community are one of the things that makes Community High such a student friendly place. It would be great if Pioneer and Huron could also have Forum Leaders so students could get to know a small group of students who would be their special group for 4 years. It's time for Pioneer and Huron to get perks like Skyline and Community get instead of cutting staff and raising class sizes.


Thu, Oct 27, 2011 : 11:30 a.m.

What about the families that do not have computers at home, or work? Wines may not have many of these families, but I'm sure a lot of the SE schools and Northside do. If parent communication goes paperless, what happens to these parents?


Thu, Oct 27, 2011 : 3:17 p.m.

I believe the schools are required to provide a paper copy of all communications to parents who request it.

The Picker

Thu, Oct 27, 2011 : 11:22 a.m.

The next logical step is to go administrationless. Think of the savings. Think of the cuts in redundancy.


Thu, Oct 27, 2011 : 11:09 a.m.

Ann Arbor can go paperless all they want, but with the use of technology, it will also guarantee funding on a regular basis. Teachers use laptops and projectors in class on a daily basis, what happens when they break, or become outdated? What about those families throughout the district who don't have access to computers to check powerschool for their kids grades and homework assignments (or backpack mail). This sounds great on all fronts, but technology changes, becomes obsolete, and where is that funding going to come from when these great tools expire? Once again, be careful what we wish for when all is said and done.


Thu, Oct 27, 2011 : 2:48 p.m.

There are converters to access apple to PC and back.


Thu, Oct 27, 2011 : 11:41 a.m.

It was really enjoyable to find a homework assignment couldn't be opened on our Windows computer as the file was from a Mac. I guess its the modern day version of the dog ate my homework.


Thu, Oct 27, 2011 : 11:28 a.m.

The public library system has computers free and available to use. Parents who do not take advantage of this still can call a teacher to get information about their children.


Thu, Oct 27, 2011 : 10:58 a.m.

The whole notion of going paperless and replacing that outmoded medium with high-tech computers is a ruse meant to cover substandard education for the poor. The New York Times just ran an article about silicon valley CEOs sending their kids to schools without computers, so that their privileged children have opportunities to write, paint, cut, paste, and most important, interact with an actual, warm, expert human being who provides them direct instruction. As educational budgets continue to shrink we will see more insistence on this kind of "old-fashioned" teaching among the well-heeled, as well as more and more "paperless" schools serving the poor and disadvantaged, and it will be sold to us as "progress."


Thu, Oct 27, 2011 : 11:50 a.m.

That NYT article was either in The Wall Street Journal also, or you read both and misspoke as I read it also :) The article I read went further, discussing how these kids were also not allowed to use a computer for homework like to research or write a paper. Wonder if that will make them less competitive?


Thu, Oct 27, 2011 : 11:25 a.m.

I don't think the trend described is toward replacing teachers with computers. A lot of schools use paper for communication when electronic means are more efficient and cheaper. Changing that is a move in the right direction.


Thu, Oct 27, 2011 : 10:40 a.m.

I like the trend toward going paperless at schools. I'd like to see "backpack mail" becoming a thing of the past. I do question the high cost of BoardDocs and would like to know what alternatives exist. During these times when schools and teachers are having to be more frugal, $9000 a year seems pretty costly for this program. I'd also like clarification on the sentence: "The board is expected to BoardDocs at its Nov. 16 meeting."