Students at Empire High School here started class this year with no textbooks -- but it was not because of a funding crisis.
Instead, the school issued iBooks -- laptop computers by Apple Computer Inc. -- to each of its 340 students, becoming one of the first U.S. public schools to shun printed textbooks.
School officials believe the electronic materials will get students more engaged in learning. Empire High, which opened for the first time this year, was designed specifically to have a textbook-free environment.
"We've always been pretty aggressive in use of technology and we have a history of taking risks," said Calvin Baker, superintendent of the Vail Unified School District, which has 7,000 students outside of Tucson.
Schools typically overlay computers onto their instruction "like frosting on the cake," Baker said. "We decided that the real opportunity was to make the laptops the key ingredient of the cake . . . to truly change the way that schools operated."
Two years ago, about 600 school districts nationwide had pilot projects to provide laptops for each student -- a figure that's likely doubled since then, said Mark Schneiderman, director of federal education policy for the Software and Information Industry Association in Washington.
But most still issue textbooks.
"Because most schools are not starting from scratch . . . most districts are using a blended approach now and will phase out their printed textbooks," he said.
For example, in the Henrico County school system near Richmond, students in 23 middle and high schools will be using laptops for the fifth straight year, though teachers still use textbooks, said spokesman Mychael Dickerson.
Many publishers of traditional textbooks are offering digital formats to address the growing use of computers, and that provided some of the material for Empire High's curriculum. Teachers also used subscription services and free Web resources.
Students get the materials over the school's wireless Internet network. The school has a central filtering system that limits what can be downloaded on campus. The system also controls chat room visits and instant messaging that might otherwise distract wired students.
Students can turn in homework online. A Web program checks against Internet sources for plagiarized material and against the work of other students, Baker said. "If you copy from your buddy, it's going to get caught," he said.
Before Empire High opened, officials looked at the use of laptops in other schools and decided that high school students were more engaged when using computers. Unlike many adults, teenagers weaned on digital material seem to have little difficulty adapting to reading primarily on computer screens, Baker said.
But educators also decided they could do more with the technology.
In addition to offering up-to-date information, teachers can make the curriculum more dynamic. For example, lessons in social studies, which might previously have been done in summaries, can include links to full Supreme Court rulings or an explorer's personal account of a discovery.
Social studies teacher Jeremy Gypton said the transition was easier than expected. Gypton said he assigns readings based on Web sites, lists postings to news articles, uses online groups and message boards to keep the students connected on weekends and asks them to comment on each other's work.
One of the more surprising things, he said, was finding that students' proficiency at video games and e-mail hasn't always translated into other computer skills.
"One of the greatest challenges actually is getting the kids up to speed in using Word, in using an Internet browser for other than a simple global search," Gypton said.
All of Empire's students knew about the laptop-only setup when they enrolled, and students who were uncomfortable with it were allowed to enroll in the district's other, more traditional schools. But Empire has a waiting list.
Julian Tarazon, a freshman, said he does not miss lugging around a bag full of books.
"It was kind of hard at first, because you had to put things in folders," Julian said, referring, naturally, to virtual folders on his computer's desktop. "After a couple of days, you kind of get used to it."
Freshman Morgan Northcutt said the computer system has made it easier to do assignments, and she is not as likely to lose them.
"There's complications like hooking up with the Internet, but other than that it's been pretty easy," Morgan said.
The school isn't entirely paperless, however. It has a library, and students are often assigned outside reading.
"We're not trying to eliminate books," Baker said. "We love books."