Yesterday morning at T.C. Williams High School, Mrs. Sears's 10th-grade PE students lined up in the hall to collect their gear for the coming year. To hear some of them talk, one might have thought they were getting the reversible gym shirts and elastic-waisted shorts issued to students a generation ago.
"Mine's really dirty," complained one girl. Another student pointed at a label and remarked, "That's not my name." But the sorting out went quickly, and in about 10 minutes each student in the class had a brand-new, sleek, 3.5-pound Hewlett-Packard 4010 Notebook.
The laptop computers were free -- and theirs to keep until June. Each was labeled with a student's name and two security stickers.
This week, T.C. Williams is handing out laptops for the first time to its 2,100 students to use for research and homework, joining a handful of high schools in the nation to do so. The computers will have wireless Web access on campus and can be used off campus for word processing and other non-Internet work.
The idea is to make sure students of all socioeconomic backgrounds have the latest equipment in an increasingly computerized world. It also will help meet a Virginia requirement that graduating seniors be technologically literate.
"Alexandria's such a diverse community," said Steve Colantuoni, the assistant principal in charge of the school's laptop program. "We have kids from all over the world and all levels of income. This was one more thing that would bridge the gap."
With colleges incorporating computers into instruction, and with many employers assuming that applicants have computer experience, it might be just a matter of time before computers become as elemental to high school as backpacks or calculators. Laptop programs have sprung up in Henrico and Roanoke counties and across the state of Maine.
Many private schools require students to have personal computers, although students are generally expected to pay for them. T.C. Williams, the only high school in the Alexandria district, reserved $1.4 million of its annual budget to lease, insure and administer the computers, which would have cost about $1,600 each if students had bought them individually.
"It gives us the ability to level the playing field," said John Crites, head of technical support for the Alexandria school district. "If one kid has a computer at home and is able to make graphics and pie charts and another kid has to draw the graphics and pie charts, the way their papers come out is going to differ."
In a twist, the newest students were the seasoned veterans yesterday. Last year, as a trial run, ninth-graders at Minnie Howard were issued laptops. So, as one beaming senior gushed about her new laptop, the first she's ever had, the 10th-graders took a more worldly view.
Sophomore Mohamed Awad offered senior Mohamed Walid Osmani some insights. "Treat it good, and it will treat you good," he said, adding that last year some students downloaded games, music and movies that froze the network.
Jasmin Kellyman, a sophomore waiting in line, said having a laptop last year at Minnie Howard helped her work. "It's easier to take notes," she said. "It keeps you actually awake, instead of falling asleep over your pencil."
But there were Luddites in the crowd. "I don't really think that we need laptops," said Eugene Dyson, a senior. "It's basically opening up a door for students to just mingle around." He said the money should be spent on books. "Pencil and paper have been doing fine all these years," he said. "Why now?"
When planning for T.C. Williams, administrators investigated other schools' programs to learn what had and hadn't worked. A big challenge was figuring out how to restrict Internet use to academic -- or at least wholesome -- uses, and block pornographic Web sites, video games and music downloading.
While parents must sign statements agreeing to abide by the school's "acceptable use" policy, parents aren't always the best monitors of tech-savvy kids. Often, computers are to parents what rock music was to their own parents' generation: an intimidating new language in which only the young are fluent, a world that can seem dangerous to outsiders.
Only a few parents attended laptop information sessions last week, and administrators have largely taken responsibility for supervision. They have installed three filters and a warning system that alerts the school if questionable words or sites show up on a computer. Without reformatting, which is forbidden, the computers can't connect to the Internet anywhere but at school, and the system has no instant messaging or e-mail, although the school is considering adding a limited e-mail system.
At training sessions yesterday, Chris Sieger, the school's director of information technology, warned students that administrators can track from afar the Web sites they visit. If a student breaks through to a restricted site, he said, administrators will see it almost immediately, identify the culprit and block the site. They also plan to confiscate offenders' computers and cleanse them of banned material.
Dyson warned that the school watchdogs will be up against some sharper adversaries than they saw at Minnie Howard. "You do have hackers walking around in T.C. Williams High School," he said. "I know a few myself."
Patrick Welsh, an English teacher, said yesterday that he already had heard students talking about beating the system. "The guys who know computers -- they call them the 'gamers' -- they're getting very popular, because they're going to try to break the code," he said.
Accidents are also part of the landscape.
"Kids are still kids; they're going to drop them, they're going to lay them down and forget to pick it up," Colantuoni said. Last year, several laptops took unscheduled solo trips around town after students left them on city buses; one turned up in Denver. With security warnings on the cover and instant identification if a laptop is plugged into an outside network, these computers have a better chance of being returned than most. The security manufacturer guarantees that it will find a lost laptop within 60 days or replace it.
The laptops can serve as doors into new worlds. Last year at Minnie Howard's laptop handout, "it was almost like Christmas," Colantuoni said. "Some of them were wiping it off, some of them were looking at it wide-eyed." In the cafeteria, "kids from Ethiopia were showing their friends where their country was."
In the end, though, laptops in schools may become as common as gym shorts.
"When I started teaching, the VCR was new, films were new," said G.A. Hagen, a technology teacher who was a member of T.C. Williams's first graduating class, 37 years ago. "It's just another tool to supplement the learning process."