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Saddle Ridge Elementary teachers Mark Sailer, left, and Kim Elliott use their new iPads during a training session conducted by iSchool Initiative leaders from Atlanta. Saddle Ridge, a newly-built school in Rock Spring, Ga., will have a nearly paperless campus this year while they're transitioning from textbooks to iPads.
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Staff Photo Illustration of iPad and books by Doug Strickland

ROCK SPRING, Ga. - Forget books, worksheets and pencils. Saddle Ridge School is leaping into the 21st century.

The new Walker County school is going paperless by ditching textbooks and putting school-issued iPads into the hands of each student and teacher. Here, instruction won't be based solely on book chapters; rather, teachers will pull resources from Web sites, apps and other educational materials.

Walker County officials say the newly minted building on U.S. Highway 27, where classes start Tuesday, gave them a chance to start from scratch, building the school of the future now. And it's a model they hope to replicate in other county schools.

But the school's influence may trickle beyond just North Georgia, offering lessons for other school systems across the region that are working on sizable technology upgrades. In Hamilton County, Tenn., officials announced some nine months ago an aggressive plan to get tablets to all students, though so far most of the upgrades have been behind the scenes.

Together with its unique design, Saddle Ridge's tech infusion gives a glimpse at the direction public education is going, to schools that aren't defined by rows of desks, notebooks and textbooks. Some of the nation's more pioneer-minded schools are becoming more tech savvy, pulling the best books, videos and lessons from millions of online resources, putting the world's entire collection of knowledge at students' fingertips and making school a place that's just as much about discovery as it is rote learning.

And though Walker County's other schools have continually added on computers and tablets, none has yet gone all-in like Saddle Ridge.

"When you're talking about a paperless classroom, that's pretty foreign to most teachers," said Assistant Principal Sherry Smyth.

Some teachers are nervous about the wholesale transition. But the school was abuzz last week as teachers received training on their iPads and ways to best use them in the classroom. Trainers came in to work in small groups with teachers and stuck around to work with parents at an evening open house. They'll come back throughout the year, including the day the students receive the devices.

And educators say that level of support is what's needed to make such a launch successful.

Cleveland City Schools in Tennessee piloted iPads in three classrooms last year. But there wasn't much investment of time or money into teacher training, said Andrew Phillips, the district's technology supervisor. Using a tablet as an educational tool takes higher-level skills than just using one to surf the Web on your couch, Phillips said.

"To me, the professional development is the most important thing," he said. "Effectively using an iPad in the classroom is totally different from just having one at home."

The Hamilton County Schools has been exploring an initiative to get iPads or similar devices to all its 42,000 students since December. But with nearly 80 schools, it's a monstrous task to just get the wireless and bandwidth infrastructure in place.

So far, the district has focused on getting wireless access points and wiring into its buildings. That effort could take another year or so, officials said. But then the system will be able to go after grant funding or accept community donations of devices.

"The way I look at it is once the infrastructure is in place, it's going to open us up," said Patty Kinsey, Hamilton County Schools' director of information technology. "Because right now if someone wants to go and donate a whole classload of iPads, the school system itself can't handle that connectivity on the network."

Of course, it's easier to build a high-tech school from scratch. That's what allowed Whitfield County's Coahulla Creek High School to issue Android tablets to each student upon the school's opening in 2011. At first, Coahulla Creek allowed students to take their tablets home. But after some came back damaged or were lost, administrators decided to keep the tablets at school.

Still, Assistant Principal Stephanie Hungerpiller said the tablets have been a boon to instruction. School leaders expected them to be used for e-books, calculators and surfing the Internet. But teachers are also using apps as band instruments, video cameras and even to simulate the human body in anatomy class.

"The teachers do more with these than we ever expected," she said.

And though some tablets were damaged or lost, that's really no different from textbooks, which can be drawn on, torn up or go missing.

"It's like anything else," Hungerpiller said. "You're going to have some things that get damaged. And I think the school has to weigh whether it's worth it."

But the cost of iPads or other pieces of technology might be less than most would expect. Because when you ditch textbooks, which can cost hundreds of dollars per student, a $300 iPad mini doesn't seem so expensive.

It took about $1.4 million to build Saddle Ridge's wireless infrastructure, though the district paid only a fraction of that because of a federal technology program, said Michael Tipton, Walker County's technology coordinator. The 500 iPads were $299 apiece, and the district spent about $20,000 on teacher training, Tipton said.

If Saddle Ridge had been built without a sophisticated technology plan, he said, equipping it likely would have cost more because of the high cost of textbooks.

"I would have spent more money than I did here," Tipton said. "And kids wouldn't be as engaged. And I really think the teachers wouldn't be as engaged."

For those schools that roll out handheld devices, there's often a big dose of personal responsibility issued alongside them.

At Saddle Ridge, where students in grades three through eight will be allowed to take their iPad minis home, teachers are gearing up to teach the basics of care, responsibility and appropriate use. Students will learn how to carry them up and down stairs alongside learning how to actually use the iPads. But they'll also be learning a new way of doing school.

"There's going to be a lot of, 'This is an iPad and you're going to be very careful,'" said Smyth, the assistant principal.

"Probably one of the biggest challenges is going to be teaching our kids how big a responsibility this is," she said. "We're going to teach the kids that we're different, this is why we're different and this is how we are able to be different."

Contact staff writer Kevin Hardy at khardy@timesfree or 423-757-6249.