ST. FRANCISVILLE — Building from a small state grant in 2007, the West Feliciana Parish school system continues to expand a program that puts computers into students’ hands for use in class or at home.

The one-to-one computer initiative now has 750 tablet computers in use and 160 laptop computers, most of them at West Feliciana Middle School, said Jerome Matherne, the district’s technology supervisor.

The sixth, seventh and ninth grades have Apple iPad tablet computers and the eighth grade uses Apple MacBook laptops, Matherne said.

The program began in the middle school but now has reached into some elementary grades and the high school’s ninth-grade class.

“I think what we’re doing at the middle school right now is the future of public education,” Superintendent Hollis G. Milton said. “We’re just ahead of it.”

Milton said strong leadership, especially on the part of middle school Principal Ben Necaise, is critical to the program’s success.

“He really knows how to lead that type of innovation,” Milton said.

The district plans to continue expanding the program “because the one-to-one device, whether it be a laptop, an iPad or a yet-unforeseen device, is the new textbook,” Milton said.

In 2007, then-Gov. Kathleen Blanco pushed legislation to begin one-to-one computer programs on a pilot basis in state schools.

Only a small number of students would get the state-funded laptops at the outset, but then-School Superintendent Lloyd Lindsey decided to use local funds and the state grant to put laptops into the hands of every sixth-grader at the middle school.

Lindsey, who died in April 2009, embraced the project but said he did not want to divide students into “haves and have-nots” in the area of technology.

West Feliciana voters approved a new half-cent sales tax in 2010 that provides a steady funding source to continue providing students with computers.

West Feliciana Middle School recently was one of three Louisiana schools named an Apple Distinguished School for the second consecutive year.

“It’s a huge honor,” Milton said. “I think there were 54 schools (nationwide) honored last year, and 44 this year.

“That’s a tremendous feat for us, and I think it shows a lot of accomplishments: First of all, the vision of Mr. Necaise to continue the program, the vision of Mr. Lindsey to start the program and a lot of behind-the-scenes effort, too. Those teachers work so hard trying to continue to be innovative and use them in the best ways to reach kids.”

Necaise gave two examples of how the computers are being used in his school.

In one, students who would have read 1930s radio plays in a textbook several years ago and answered questions about them with paper and pencil, now use their iPad tablets to find old radio programs on the Internet and listen to them.

The students then write their own plays and use a special music and voice editing application to record their plays.

In a math class, students use their iPads for “trick” photography” outdoors that makes them appear to be as tall as the school building or to be holding up a bus ramp. They then returned to the classroom to use other applications to make presentations on ratios and proportions from the pictures, Necaise said.

“One of the important things to understand is that one-to-one does not replace good teaching,” Necaise said. “It doesn’t replace pedagogy; it just allows it to enhance it.”

The middle school is a Wi-Fi campus.

“You’ll see kids down at the pond out back, doing science lessons,” Necaise said. “Even the reading teachers will go outside on a nice day. It still reaches them outdoors.

“Two years ago, we would have considered laptops to be our device. Now it’s more of the tablet device. The tablets are just cheaper, lighter and more durable. I couldn’t have pictured this three years ago.”

Although the computers are more susceptible to damage if students take them home, “we think it’s worth it to have as much equity (in access) in those devices,” Matherne said.

“You can do everything on an iPad that you could do on a laptop,” Necaise said. “It may be different, it may not be as robust, but you can do everything on it. We found that to be a blessing in disguise because you can create a presentation on it and might have 10 transitions you can use, as opposed to 200 on a laptop.

“So what it did was allow the teachers and students to focus more on content and not get bogged down in bells and whistles.”