Backpacks, like these toted by students at John Paul II Academy, Racine, earlier this month, may be a thing of the past next year at the new St. Catherine Middle School in Racine, as the school plans to implement wireless education in the fall. (Catholic Herald photo by Allen Fredrickson)

RACINE — Next fall, sixth grade students will be carrying lighter backpacks and reading assignments measured in megabytes rather than page count. EBooks may save the school money and paper cuts in the near future.

EBooks, digital books that can be purchased and downloaded to a computer, come in various formats and can even be edited or highlighted. Students will also learn to turn the resources of the Internet into a personal tutor, library and reference tool.

Thanks to an anonymous donor, members of the first class attending the new St. Catherine Middle School in Racine will have their own netbook laptops to use interactively online with eBooks. This wireless feature will allow the school to go green and save money and trees as it reduces its paper use.

With a commitment of 25 students for the incoming class, including netbooks in the curriculum will add $400 to regular tuition costs, much less than actual costs incurred in adding this program, thanks to the donor who provided funds to purchase the laptops.

The wireless program coincides with the school’s mission to prepare its students for modern problem solving, focusing on advanced academics, putting students on a fast track and enabling them to begin taking high school credit classes as seventh and eighth grade students.

Eventually, St. Catherine Middle and High School plans to include wireless education for all six grades, but will be implementing the process one grade at a time said school president Christopher Olley.

“This will give staff time to prepare and train our staff,” he said. “We hired Elisabeth Blandford for our incoming sixth grade; she is a master teacher who is excited about researching and utilizing new methods to reach out students. We are on the cutting edge of 21st Century education by utilizing eBooks and going wireless.”

While the eBooks won’t replace all textbooks, they are cheaper to produce as they save on printing and paper costs. In addition, rather than replacing pricey outdated textbooks every couple of years, the eBooks can be quickly updated and edited with pertinent information.

“After the year is done, we make sure the computers are upgraded for the next year,” said Olley. “And upon graduation, there would be a fee to buy the computer at a reduced rate, if the students are interested.”

Utilizing textbooks is an important facet of education, but overall education depends upon the curriculum, the teacher and keeping current with technology. For Olley, bringing St. Catherine to the forefront of technology gives the school an advantage in the Racine educational market.

“I am not aware of any one-to-one computer school or Catholic grade school with one-to- one computer technology,” he said. “We are committed to being the best educational resource in Racine and Southeast Wisconsin and adding value to what we do. We have always had a good high school and this is a great way to differentiate in the marketplace and stay one step ahead of the game.”

Addressing Catholic education by adding middle school and wireless education adds a powerful technological punch that might set St. Catherine into a league of its own, during a time when many Catholic schools are struggling to stay open.

“We are hoping that people will look at our school, including the public school kids,” said Olley. “We need a new block of kids to replace the ones we have lost in the Catholic school system. With our school, a fifth grader faced with finding a middle school can now just go to one school from sixth through 12th grade with current technology in a faith-based atmosphere and stay there until graduation.”

Faculty and staff are excited and nervous about this new era in education, according to Olley. Some are concerned how other area Catholic schools will be affected and whether the new technology will be enough to sustain Catholic education as a whole.

“I really believe that this will be a great safety net for us with the technology,” he said. “We are a good Catholic school and this gives us the potential to become a great Catholic school. We love our school, love our kids and we don’t want them at a disadvantage as they proceed in the 21st Century.”