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Wilson: Fast times at Digital High

California Gov. Pete Wilson touts his $100 million Digital High School initiative aimed at grooming graduates for high-tech jobs.

REDWOOD SHORES, California--Emerging from the second-longest budget battle in California, Republican Gov. Pete Wilson today held a small victory party at Oracle here, where he plugged the company's network computer and boosted his $100 million Digital High School initiative aimed at grooming graduates for high-tech jobs.

Wilson announced Digital High during his State of the State address in January, calling for $500 million from the state to fund new computer hardware, software, and Internet connections for high schools, as well as to provide faculty training. The state budget approved by Wilson yesterday allocates $100 million for the plan in the next year but still requires that schools match the state's contribution.

"Children who aren't exposed to technology at a young age will enter college or the workplace at a very serious disadvantage," Wilson said today at Oracle headquarters. Once Digital High is implemented, he said, "every student in every high school will graduate not just book-smart but technologically literate."

Today's event gushed with tech-savvy rhetoric. Wilson said that his wife, Gail, indulges in Amazon.com shopping sprees and works to supply computers for elementary students. A local high school student confidently demonstrated how he used Oracle's network computer and the Web to write a term paper on Java.

But even if Wilson says Digital High will provide "a driver's ed for a lifetime on the information superhighway," the ambitious program relies heavily on private funding. Today's event left unanswered questions as to when the state's curriculum will be altered to better incorporate technology.

Still, other states will likely follow California's new effort as the nation focuses on improving K-12 education using technology. For example, in Georgia, 98 percent of elementary schools are online, and Washington is rolling out a new high-speed fiber network for universities and schools this September, according to a new study. (See related story)

Companies such as Oracle have helped make California a hotbed for computer and Net development, but student access to such technology ranks a low 45 out of the 50 states, Wilson said when introducing the plan earlier this year. Aside from deploying CPUs and modems, the initiative's goal is twofold: give the state's 1.6 million high school students the computer skills they need to garner jobs in the digital age and to provide local industry with a new crop of trained workers to keep their companies nationally and globally competitive.

Oracle, the backdrop for Wilson's Digital High launch party, already has kicked in $10 million to upgrade California school technology. The company also is pushing its NC and the Oracle Learning Architecture as inexpensive learning tools.

The technology is a Net-based system that allows teachers to create virtual courses, for example, or track student progress online. In addition, students can research or write papers using the architecture, which can run on NCs, PCs, or Apple computers.

To apply for one of the 200 Digital High spots per year, schools have to develop a technology plan that explains how the money will be used. The outline has to include a teacher training program; a plan for implementing computers, software, and the Net into curricula; and list corporate partners or other grant dollars that will help the school match the state's contribution.

Aside from corporate donations, schools can count technology grant money received in previous years and computers that are no more than five years old. School grant proposals will be chosen by lottery.

The Education Council for Technology in Learning will evaluate grant applications along with the California Technology Assistance Project. Then ECTL will recommend schools to the State Board of Education, which has the final word on who gets Digital High grants.

To reach a total investment goal of $1 billion, the legislation's backers now expect Silicon Valley and other corners of the state to contribute the remaining millions to enhance technology in the state's 840 high schools. "It is up to the rest of us in the industry and community to make it succeed," Oracle president Ray Lane said today.

Digital High faces obstacles when it comes to equally distributing technology dollars to schools. For example, the plan depends on a ring leader at every school who can jump start the application process. Campuses also will need a mover and shaker who can reel in corporate contributions to meet the matching requirement.

Moreover, some observers said although the money was dedicated for this year, there's always a chance that it could disappear from future state budgets, leaving out hundreds of schools. "It could happen," an attendee noted.

But if a school lacks corporate connections, there are options, Wilson contended, such as turning to the school district for guidance or the Department of Education.

The California Technology Assistance Project can also help, according to Selma Sax, a former school teacher and administrator, who now chairs ECTL. "It should be self-directed, but schools can receive whatever help they need. There is money built into Digital High to fund programs that help schools apply and implement their plan. This is for both schools who are ready to go and those who need more hand-holding."

Digital High also calls for teacher training, which will vary for each school. But proponents of the plan say that will change in the future.

"One obstacle is generational, and that is going to pass as you have more new teachers who have grown up with computers," said John Hodges, a San Francisco information technology consultant who helped draft the bill.