Wired schools: It takes a village

PALO ALTO, California--Fourth-grader Anastasia Scott's class has been studying the solar system and imagining how extraterrestrial life might look. She's already drawn a picture and written an essay in longhand. Today, she sits at a Macintosh to scan in her little green man and post it to a Web site to share with a class across town.

Wired schools: It takes a village
"="" size="-1"> By Courtney Macavinta
October 16, 1997, 6:00 a.m. PT

special report   PALO ALTO, California--
Fourth-grader Anastasia Scott's class has been studying the solar system and imagining how extraterrestrial life might look. She's already drawn a picture and written an essay in longhand. Today, she sits at a Macintosh to scan in her little green man and post it to a Web site to share with a class across town.

Located in the affluent heart of Silicon Valley, Walter Hays Elementary is the kind of school President Clinton likes to single out as ipso facto proof that spending billions of dollars on computers and cables is good for education.

On the other side of U.S. 101 in East Palo Alto, César Chávez Academy is also

At César Chávez Academy, the computer lab has displaced the library.
trying to meet the digital schoolhouse challenge. Fifth-grade students sit quietly in a computer lab while a classmate carefully reads a passage describing Internet search engines. Next the class goes online to practice navigating cyberspace, a fairly new exercise for many of them.

Despite their proximity, the communities that Hays and Chávez serve are worlds apart. One is an enclave of old California money; the other has one of the highest crime rates in the northern half of the state. Yet they face many of the same obstacles in their government-mandated drive to get wired, problems that no amount of political grandstanding or corporate marketing jargon can solve.

As the first anniversary of NetDay approaches, educators at both schools are wishing for something less tangible than the wires necessary to fulfill this electronic classroom initiative. They need help.

"There is an overwhelming feeling that you need computers, but there has been no curriculum guide," said Greg Canavero, a sixth-grade teacher at César Chávez. "My teacher guide doesn't include an option for how to use computers to complete a project."

Canavero's complaints can be heard throughout the country. To be sure, kids

CNET TV: October 18-19

CNET Central: A look at the cost vs. the benefits of computers in schools.

The Web: See how wired classrooms might work in your local school.

must learn to use computers as naturally as they use pencils if they are to survive in the workplace or even in college. But educators say they need blueprints, not more educational software, to show them how to logically work these high-tech materials into their lesson plans. Just as important, they say, is technical support. (See "Teacher training is key to success")

Only about 15 percent of public educational technology funding goes toward training and support, said Jeff Hannah of the 21st Century Teachers Network. He estimates the number should be closer to 30 percent.

Jump, then look
During his State of the Union address in January, President Clinton declared that classrooms should be online by the year 2000, and both students and teachers should be computer literate. He gave this equal weight to the goal that children should be able to read by themselves by third grade.

Spending in the 1997-98 school year on equipping public schools with technology is expected to reach $5.2 billion, up from $4.3 billion in the 1996-97 school year. During the next five years, Clinton's plan calls for an additional $2 billion in public funds.

And private companies are kicking in millions more. Microsoft pumped $1.1 million into Los Angeles public schools and libraries in November. And Oracle also has pledged $100 million to equip K-12 schools with hardware.

State and local governments are pouring on the cash, the hype, and the pressure, as well. "Children who aren't exposed to technology at a young age will enter college or the workplace at a very serious disadvantage," said California Gov. Pete Wilson when he announced the state's approval this year of $100 million for the Digital High School initiative, aimed at grooming a computer-literate workforce.

"There's lots of money out there, but if you say 'let's write grants, let's get stuff, and we'll decide what we'll do with it later,' then your goal is not going to come easy," said Selma Sax, chair of the California Education Council for Technology in Learning, which oversees the distribution of education technology grants for the state. (See "From textbooks to technology")

Education experts agree that plans should come before computers. "The success stories didn't get the technology and then search for a use. They got the technology to service a predetermined educational need," said Tom Glennan, who cowrote the national study on the use of educational technology for RAND, a nonprofit public policy research center.

César Chávez: Rich in tech
California provides a good case study of the struggle to integrate computers with the "three Rs." It has the largest population of public school students in the nation, according to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), and the pressure is on the Golden State to ensure that digital technology is used within more than 7,700 primary schools alone.

At Chávez, the immediate goal is to put five computers in every classroom. What started with NetDay '96 has led to a wave of computer and accessory grants. Last year six teachers garnered 42 computers for their rooms through Smart Valley PC Day grants; two other teachers will apply for a total of 12 more machines this year. In addition, Hewlett-Packard just donated $10,000 in state-of-the-art laser printers and scanners. To finish the job that the private sector started, César Chávez Academy decided to use a one-time $35,000 federal grant to buy more PCs.

This month, the students here are studying to get their Internet driver's licenses, a course designed to teach them how to navigate in cyberspace wisely. A handful of fifth-graders immediately type in the assigned Web site address, and begin popping around the site via hyperlinks. Others forget to hit the "enter" key after typing a URL into their browser.

Joanna Leon, 10, practices word processing because the Macintosh she uses is not online and soon will be removed to make room for the new PCs. Leon said she has never used a computer or the Net to complete a school report. "I've used the Internet at the [public] library. My friend showed me how to look up Selena sites," she said.

Despite the abundance of technology, the focus here is on literacy in both English and Spanish.

About 85 percent of students speak Spanish, and the school receives extra funding to serve low-income students. Their parents typically don't work for the high-tech industry, and parent volunteers and classroom aides are scarce.

"We're trying to appeal to all the learning styles, while acknowledging that most professions require the use of computers," said Carol Piraino, César Chávez's vice principal. "Just because some of them don't know how to read and write well, does that mean they should not be computer literate either?"

The long-term goal at César Chávez is that the computers in every classroom serve as "seamless tools." The school is just now starting to integrate computers into lesson plans. This fall, science instructor Susan Cassidy was reassigned part time to bring her colleagues up to speed technically, and to help them use computers as naturally as they use books and chalkboards.

Major federal dollars for education technology
1994 Congress
Goals 2000: Educate America Act
$250 million
1994 Congress
Improving America's Schools Act
$257 million
1996 FCC
Telecommunications Act of 1996
$2.25 billion/yr
1997 President Clinton
America's Technology Literacy Challenge
Proposed: $425 million, 2nd installment of 5-yr, $2 billion plan
Source: Educational Testing Service and NEWS.COM reports

"We knew theoretically what we wanted to do before, but the big push came with NetDay when we got the school online," Piraino said. "Now the school plan is to get the kids and teachers comfortable. We want them to be problem-solvers, and use all the necessary resources." (See "Hope for students, instructors")

Walter Hays: Strength lies beyond hardware
With parent volunteers and instructional aides laced throughout its classrooms, Walter Hays Elementary's effort to merge computers into English, math, and science lessons is moving along a bit more steadily.

As children scan pictures of colorful aliens they painted, they rattle off terms such as "scanning" and "Internet" while explaining that their goal is to write detailed descriptions of aliens, and exchange the narrations via email with fourth graders at a neighboring school.

Each class will then draw a picture of the others' creatures. Next, the final art and descriptions are placed on a Web site, and students evaluate how well the picture matches the description. It's a project that embraces art, reading, writing, science, and teamwork.

"I learned how to explain things better and rephrase things. I learned about the Net, and sending email, too," said Anthony Garrison, 10, who completed the project last year.

Listening to the Walter Hays students talk, it's no surprise that a majority have computers at home (24 out of 27 kids in one fourth-grade class).

But the Walter Hays teachers don't credit computers with turning out high achievers. Quite the opposite. Though computers are more equally dispersed at Hays, and students have been online a year longer, César Chávez owns more state-of-the-art equipment.

Hays students use computers with ease because other fundamentals are in place, teachers contend. These students score among the top in the nation for reading and math, and the parental pool is saturated with people who helped build Silicon Valley into a technology hotbed--many of whom volunteer during the once-per-week computer lab class or in their child's homeroom.

Under pressure
Chávez and Hays aren?t perfect in their bid to build high-tech classrooms, but they're doing better than most. The pressure to get wired is so palpable that some administrators seem to a have lost all sense in the frenzy.

For example, in its desire to be the "only U.S. school district to outfit all of its students with computers," the school board in Earlimart, California, a small town in the Central Valley, bought $3 million worth of laptops, then went over its yearly budget and ordered $836,000 worth of desktop computers, software, scanners, and modems from CompUSA.

It was a luxury the district couldn't afford. As reported by the Visalia Times-Delta, if the additional sale is sealed, the district's reserve

fund balance will sink too low, causing the state to take over daily operation of the district. The school official who approved the buy has been put on leave. Now the board is trying to return the pricey goods, which sit unused in a local warehouse.

But after the high-tech circus leaves town, teachers are left with the same charge: educate kids. Computers are just one tool. Teachers would do well to remember that, said Page McDonald, a part-time "tech integrator" for the Palo Alto School District.

"We don't know where computers will be in 25 years. We don't know if Silicon Valley will still be here. But we do know that in 25 years, if these kids can read, write, and reason, they'll have jobs."  

Photos by Margie Wylie

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