(TNS) -- When iPads first made their way into Ann McLellan's pre-kindergarten classroom seven years ago, she had to give her students lessons on how to use their tiny 4-year-old fingers to swipe and type.
She doesn't have to give that lesson any more.
"Just in that short amount of time it's already part of their life," the Dexter Elementary School teacher said.
But not all students are as fortunate as the ones in her Cordova-based classroom. That's why Shelby County Schools is using about $336,500 from its Head Start grant to buy iPads for classrooms in nine Head Start centers, where the student population is less likely to be exposed to technology at home.
The purchase is one of two major capital investments the school board approved last week to accommodate a growing preschool program.
In addition to the iPad purchases, the district is spending $816,864 to construct 19 playgrounds or natural play spaces that are certified safe for preschoolers.
DeAnna McClendon, director of the SCS early childhood program, said 75 percent of children enter school with previous technology exposure.
"The problem is that the children we serve, they're not a part of that 75 percent," she said. "They're more than likely in the 25 percent."
That presents the district with the challenge of catching them up to their more advantaged peers, especially as state tests, which start in the third grade, will be taken entirely online starting this school year.
"As we begin to prepare for the TNReady assessment, we need to start actually having a footprint in early childhood at what is an appropriate level for our children to be able to have that piece of technology in their hands," McClendon said.
The district will construct new playgrounds at seven schools and add natural play spaces to 12 schools that don't have enough room for a full preschool playground.
"When we added 4-year-old classrooms to those particular locations, the playgrounds were not actually labeled for ages 2 through 12," McClendon said.
The next phase will be to retrofit existing playgrounds at other schools to accommodate smaller children. That could include removing a fireman's pole or stopping a bridge from swinging. McClendon said the hope is to have all the projects completed by the spring.
"It is a large investment but we are excited to be able to do it," McClendon said. "So I think what you're seeing or what we're feeling is growth."
©2015 The Commercial Appeal (Memphis, Tenn.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.