Some days, eighth-grader Luis Antonio Bonola skips lunch to type his assignments in the school's computer lab. Other days, he asks permission to skip class to use the lab.
Luis, 14, must use the computers at Sierra Vista Middle School because his parents can't afford to buy one, he said.
"It's hard because I can't do the reports," Luis said. "Sometimes my teachers won't let me go to the computer lab because I might miss the lessons."
Soon, he won't need to ask. In August, Hacienda La Puente Unified School District will supply its fifth-, seventh- and ninth-graders with new Dell laptops. It's part of a plan to give computers to more than 17,000 district students by 2013. The program will cost the district about $1,000 for each computer.
"We're trying to prepare our students for this world of global competition and online socialization," said Michael Droe, the district's chief technology officer. "But how do you do that if they don't have access to the technology? The intuitive thing is, you need to provide it."
The initiative is one of hundreds of so-called one-to-one programs across the country in which the goal is to establish a ratio of one student to one computer. They usually involve partnerships between school districts and technology companies. In this case, Dell Inc. will provide service and technical support for the laptops for up to four years.
"It's been an evolutionary conversation about how they can better prepare their students for the 21st century," said Karen Bruett, director of Dell's public-sector education and community initiatives. "We try to play the role of an integrator."
Teachers, too, will play that role because the program pushes them to integrate curricula with technology. Hacienda La Puente is giving its teachers, who also will receive laptops, 80 hours of training.
"Our conventional way of teaching has to change," said Mark Shin, a science teacher at Wilson High School. "That's a hard thing for some teachers to swallow because we try very hard to plan."
The laptop programs around the country have had mixed results. As some school districts adopt them, others are dropping theirs because students abuse the computers or become distracted with them during class. Also, some educators are unconvinced that more computer access equates to higher academic achievement.
Past efforts have raised concerns about equal access. In 2006, the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California pressed the Fullerton School District to adopt a borrowing policy for parents who couldn't afford to buy computers under its Laptops for Learning program.
At Hacienda La Puente, the laptops will be available free to all students. Those who attend class 95% of the time and whose parents sign an agreement also will be able to take them home, keep them over summer vacations and sign up for high-speed Internet access, also paid by the district. After four years of use, students can take ownership of the computers if a parent attends a $35 training course.
Shin, whose ninth-graders will be among those receiving laptops, said the program will help students who don't have computers at home and are forced to go elsewhere for access.
"They have to struggle so much harder to complete an assignment than anyone else," he said. "I'm not saying it's impossible, but maybe they're feeling, well, other people can do it at home. Why can't I?"