From Books To Bytes
Monterey County schools stake their future on high technology.
Thursday, April 2, 1998
When the Cesar E. Chavez Elementary School first opened its classroom doors to students in the fall of 1996, Alisal Union School District officials knew they were facing a unique set of educational challenges.
Of the approximately 800 kindergarten through 6th-grade students who attend Chavez Elementary, 75 percent are categorized as having limited English proficiency. Most live in one of East Salinas'' highest crime areas, with very few having the kind of economic advantages and educational opportunities available to students in better-funded, more-established school districts.
The hoped-for solution to providing Chavez Elementary students with a quality education on par with other school districts has been a significant investment in advanced computer and communications technology. District officials believe that by incorporating high technology directly into classrooms and school curricula, students at Chavez Elementary will be better prepared to meet the demands of higher education and the workforce of the 21st century.
"We have to meet students'' needs and try to integrate technology into the curriculum as much as possible," says Dr. Glenn Della Maggiore, technology coordinator for the nine K-6 elementary schools that comprise the Alisal Union School District. For Della Maggiore, his district''s investment in new technologies will go a long way toward giving Alisal district students the same advantages students in other districts enjoy.
"We have been at a disadvantage when you look at other districts in terms of our kids having zero computing power at home," adds Della Maggiore. "Their only access is at school, and now that we have the tools available for students and teachers at Cesar Chavez, we will be able to make things more equitable and allow disadvantaged districts to have access to telecommunications information services."
School districts throughout Monterey County share in Della Maggiore''s belief that technology-based education represents the best hope for improving public education. While many educators hope the computer revolution in schools will become the panacea for all our educational woes, they concede that it also presents many challenges that school districts may not be prepared or able to meet. Whatever the eventual outcome, school officials know that computers are reshaping the future of education and will forever alter the way teachers teach and students learn. It represents a bold investment in our kids'' future that no school district can afford to ignore.
In less than two years, Chavez Elementary has emerged as one of Monterey County''s most technically advanced and sophisticated schools in the integration of computer and communications technology into student education.
Students at Chavez Elementary currently have access to 75 Apple Power PCs, with each classroom connected to an Ethernet-based internal network infrastructure. Students and teachers can access a centralized multi-media system employing six VCRs, two laser-disc players, interactive CD-ROMs, and four cable and two satellite broadcast channels providing access to educational programs as well as video-networking.
On any given day at Chavez Elementary, students may be communicating with their teachers or each other via E-mail, working in the classroom with other students accessing research information on the Internet, or downloading reference material from high-speed CD-ROMs for school reports.
Chavez Elementary''s success story is one that is being matched in varying degrees by school districts throughout Monterey County.
Although local educators acknowledge that disparities exist from district to district, the money that is now available from the state, federal government, and private corporations indicates that it is only a matter of several years before all Monterey County public schools achieve parity.
Big Bytes = Big Bucks
The accelerated push towards incorporating computer and communications technology into Monterey County schools is part of a statewide trend that began with passage of the 1992 Morgan-Farr-Quackenbush Educational Technology Act. That act awarded technology implementation grants on a 50 percent matching basis to school districts and county offices of education throughout the state of California for hardware and software communications.
Despite passage of the Educational Technology Act, a California Department of Education survey conducted in 1995 showed California public schools ranked far below other states in terms of availability of and access to high technology, a somewhat galling situation for the state that gave birth to the high-tech revolution.
The study found a ratio of 14 students for each computer in California classrooms, compared to six per computer at higher-ranking schools in other states. Discounting obsolete equipment, the report indicated the actual ratio was closer to one computer for every 73 students.
California schools also ranked 36th in the use of CD-ROMs, 43rd in network access, 45th in the number of students per computer, and 50th in videocassette recorders.
In anticipation of the Morgan-Farr-Quackenbush Educational Technology Act being repealed this June, a 1996-1997 report by the California Education Technology Task Force has proposed spending just over $10 billion on technology over a four-year period for California''s 7,818 public schools.
In order to place California schools at the top of the list in terms of technology applications in the schools, the task force outlined a series of goals to be completed by the year 2001, including a student-to-computer ratio of 4-to-1, telecommunications access for students in every classroom and library, and having all graduating high school students "computer literate," defined as displaying aptitude using e-mail, the Internet and demonstrated skills in word processing, electronic publishing and spreadsheet programs.
While no specific funding mechanism is outlined in the report, the task force suggests a combination of state and federal grants, tax money, and private/public partnerships will be required to raise the massive fund requirements of the proposal.
Since 1996, state legislators have stepped forward with new legislation to bring additional funding to help schools throughout the state acquire the latest computer and communications facilities.
In 1997, the Digital High School Education Technology Grant Program was passed to provide one-time installation grants for ongoing technology support and staff training. Seaside, Alisal, North Salinas and Gonzales high schools will share in the $100 million awarded to 216 California high schools in the first round of grants in 1997.
All the grant recipients will also receive installation grants of $300 per student for wiring, purchasing hardware, and teacher training; and ongoing permanent funding of $45 per student for additional training technology support and maintenance.
An assembly bill introduced this January proposes to extend grant money to elementary and middle schools in a fashion similar to the Digital High grants.
With so much money earmarked for technology pouring into public schools, there are few school officials who seem willing to question the ultimate benefits of so much technological largesse. There is no consensus among educators whether computer technology is indispensable to student education, and whether it enhances student learning and performance.
There is agreement among local educators that while integrated classroom technology and improved student performance have not been statistically demonstrated, there is plenty of anecdotal evidence to show that computers have made students more receptive to learning by tapping into their instinctive fascination with computers, video and electronics.
"I think we are looking at better educated kids," says Harry Powell, the technology and media coordinator with the Monterey County Office of Education (MCOE), which has been at the forefront in helping area schools acquire the funding, training and implementation of computers and networking systems.
"We find student writing and motivation improves, and there is more opportunity for students to research and find resources they couldn''t using traditional library resources," adds Powell. "Teachers who use technology find it a good catalyst for collaborative activities. It''s a medium students are used to and it trades on technology as a visual tool to the benefit of student populations."
As one of the few dissenting voices, Hal Hegwer, the special education director and coordinator for technology for the Greenfield Union School District, says computer-based education and literacy is only as valuable as students'' basic analytical and communication skills.
"Is it necessary to have computer skills if you''re well-rounded everywhere else?" asks Hegwer. "The answer is no, unless you need those skills to communicate better. Students have to know how to access and manipulate information and there is a strong need for having computer skills in our society, but the basic skills are just as important."
One of the risks in relying on computers to educate students, say some educators, is the propensity for the technology to isolate students from their peers while overloading students with so much information that independent, analytical thinking becomes undermined.
"Computers are not intrinsically beneficial, and there is a danger in computers, like video games, where kids can be too absorbed and lose their sense of time," says Paul Behan, former chair of the Carmel Unified School District (CUSD) Education Technology Committee and principal at Big Sur''s Captain Cooper Elementary School, which received over $50,000 in technology grant money in 1997.
Behan says the increased reliance on video-based education creates an even greater obligation for teachers to engage their students in analytical thinking.
"Just like we teach kids how to read critically, we should teach them how to watch videos and TV critically," says Behan, "otherwise they''ll just accept the information thrown at them. That responsibility is high in reading and we need to do the same in video. Our focus is to remove the predisposition for computers to draw kids in, and make sure kids are working in groups with partners. We try to make it more of a social event, and in that structure tons of learning takes place."
For Behan, word processing has been the single greatest boon to opening up kids'' minds to analyzing information and facilitating greater self-expression.
"When I was a kid, if a teacher asked for a rewrite it was like pulling teeth," Behan recalls. "Word processing is the biggest tool to teach kids about revising and editing. It helps focus their thoughts and makes them more willing to rewrite without going through all the physical work. They learn the concepts better with less resistance."
For many school officials, particularly those from socioeconomically disadvantaged districts, the educational advantages of computers are incidental to providing students with the kind of technical skills that will enable them to find jobs in the 21st century work force.
Even if computers do nothing more than provide students with vocational skills without enhancing learning per se, school officials insist that on this basis alone, the schools'' investment in technology is more than justified.
"We are convinced if we produce high school graduates with advanced knowledge in computer applications we can guarantee employment," says Gonzales High School Principal John Asenjo. "The estimated salary of a high school kid versed in computers will double when they exit high school. That gives a strong message to the leadership of schools and boards. This is the direction schools need to move and my board is giving total support to proceed with this career path regardless of background."
In an effort to take advantage of the job-related skills provided by computers, Asenjo says Gonzales High plans to implement a pilot class for computer repair and hopes to eventually open an Apple-authorized service center at the school run by kids.
Although Gonzales High has been behind other schools in the funding and acquisition of high technology, Asenjo says his school is fast catching up.
As one of the designated recipients of a Digital High School grant, Gonzales High will receive $387,000, which will go towards wiring, and installation of cable and fiber-optic switches and servers. The school will also use the grant money to leverage funds from the Federal Communications Commission for additional networking expenses.
Gonzales High currently has 1,200 students with access to only 240 computers. Part of the Digital High grant money will be used to acquire 250 new computers for classrooms.
According to Asenjo, the Digital High grant will go a long way toward providing the Gonzales School District with a fully integrated program of computer-based teaching.
"We are now looking at computer work from kindergarten on up," explains Asenjo. "We expect in a short time that students will be prepared with basic computer literacy by the time they get to high school so we can really crank it up."
Regardless of computers'' specific educational benefits, most school districts in the county have implemented programs requiring demonstrated computer proficiency prior to graduation.
"Our master plan calls for a specific level of computer literacy skills prior to graduation and at specific grade levels," says Gerry Montgomery, director of technology for the Monterey Peninsula Unified School District (MPUSD). "In addition, there are staff proficiency expectations in the plan as well. Between now and 2001, we want everyone to be at a functional or advanced level of computer application use."
At the Carmel Unified School District, demonstrated computer skills will be required of all students in order to secure sufficient school credits for graduation.
"Age determines how much we use computers at the elementary level," says Marilee Caress, CUSD''s director of special projects. "Initially, kids will learn keyboarding, basic word processing skills, and applications to prepare reports. As we go through the grade levels students will be learning spreadsheets and data bases. We have a continuum of student outcomes and proficiency levels for each grade and have asked the school board to increase the high school credits requirement. Every student must complete five units related to technology."
According to Ansejo, Gonzales High will ask its school board to require 20 credits of technology work prior to graduation.
Teaching the Teachers
Critical to the successful application of computer technology in the classroom, say school officials, is having the administrative personnel and a teaching workforce that is well-versed in all levels of computer processing and networking.
Local school administrators agree that the new technologies are only as useful as school districts'' ability to fund and train the staff to run them. In addition, school districts must continue to convince teachers of the advantages of incorporating technology into their teaching regimen.
"There isn''t a good answer to ''where do we find the time to train teachers who are sitting at the novice level now and move them forward to advanced users of technology?''," says Montgomery. "There are so many demands that staff development time is limited. Beyond money is how do we release people from class obligations to get training?"
No matter how proficient teachers become in any given technology, many school officials concede that constant changes in that technology will require additional teacher training.
"The ongoing problem is keeping teachers up-to-date," says Seaside''s Fitch Middle School Librarian and Media Specialist Sally Copeland. "It may be more difficult for some teachers to incorporate computers in teaching. Someone who has taught for 30 years is now expected to incorporate a new technology.
"Some teachers have resisted it but as the years go by, they''re now on the bandwagon," adds Fitch. "It takes some successful projects for teachers to see."
It is the huge demand for staff development that has pushed the MCOE into the forefront of teacher training.
Each summer, the MCOE hosts an Internet-based instruction workshop for teachers, employing two, eight-hour-a-day sessions on using Internet resources for curriculum development. According to Powell, 150 teachers participated last year, and only 70 the year before that.
"Helping teachers integrate technology into the classroom, that is the real challenge," says Powell. "It''s up to each district and principal to determine where technology is as far as the training issue for teachers, but in many instances it''s the proverbial cart before the horse, with resources in before training and vice versa."
"Teachers are very willing to embrace technology if it is more abundant," adds Montgomery, "but it''s difficult to integrate when there''s not much of it to go around. Teachers that do have more access can attest to the power of it as a learning tool. It offers possibilities you can''t get anywhere else, certainly [not] in textbooks."
The acquisition of computer hardware, software and networking capabilities is just a small part of the total cost of delivering technology into the classroom.
Staff training, system upgrades, repairs and maintenance are all additional costs that are automatically built into a reliance on technology. School officials tacitly acknowledge that all this new technology creates a dependence that will require untold future expenditures to maintain, all of which makes the schools extremely careful about the type of equipment and systems they incorporate in their schools.
"The big issue here is just getting people within the district who have time to devote to development of program," says Hegwer. "[The Greenfield School District] is in the lower quartile in investment in kids'' education. Administration is very tight and districts that have better economic advantages and who can break loose a person will be farther ahead. When you compare us to Silicon Valley or other urban areas, it takes significantly longer for infrastructure to get to us."
"The real problem is upgrades and obsolescence," asserts Soledad Union School District Technology Mentor Bob Gwinn.
According to Gwinn, his district''s 1,900 students have access to only 75 computers, many of which are outdated Macs and of which only 55 are capable of networking on the Internet. With his district''s limited budget, Gwinn says the district has had to purchase refurbished computers from Soledad Prison in order to help meet student demand.
"When Windows ''95 came out we didn''t do any upgrade at first," says Gwinn. "We are now finding most software runs on Windows ''95 and Pentium processors. It''s hard for school districts to upgrade and we need a commitment by the state for funding for computer purchases for all schools. We can''t stay up with it with our budgeting."
Part of the difficulty many school districts have in staying apace with changing technology is the disparity in state and local funding based on school size.
According to MCOE''s Powell, some state grants are based on student attendance, with larger schools securing larger grants. Powell estimates that this year, schools can expect to receive anywhere from $4,000 to $45,000 per school in state money.
"Basic aid to schools has fallen behind and we''re playing catch up," says Pacific Grove School District Technology Coordinator Bruce Cates.
"In the last couple of years the state has provided some block grant money, and that''s made a big difference for us. We''ve been able to add a whole series of computer labs and classroom computers with the block grant. I''d say we''re still behind but have made great strides toward catching up."
For Cates and other school officials, schools that can''t rely on a steady stream of grant money are forced to hold on to computers way beyond their ability to access the most up-to-date software and programs.
"We get more life out of our equipment than any business would ever want to," says Cates. "Technology is expensive and you have to make your computers last a long time. We''re still teaching word processing on old equipment. You can teach the basics but the world has advanced way beyond that."
Even for a powerhouse like the Monterey Peninsula Unified School District, which has over 12,000 students at 21 schools with access to approximately 3,000 computers, funding shortfalls remain an ongoing problem.
"Sixty percent of the computers [at MPUSD] are over 10 years old," says Montgomery. "Some computers are older than the kids using them. We don''t have the funding budget to replace all our older computers. We''re struggling to come up with funding to rotate our old machines out."
As education becomes more technology dependent, educators acknowledge schools will continue to struggle to maintain and apportion what limited funding is available to keep up with changing technology.
"The big effort is to always be aware of where we spend our dollars so we maximize the access to technology and the flow is smooth from kindergarten to grade 12," says Behan.
No single issue is more complex or challenging to school officials than assuring students at all grade levels and from all socioeconomic backgrounds have equal access to computer technology. The greatest risk the schools face, say educators, is allowing students without access to computers outside the classroom to fall behind their peers.
"I think it''s obvious that anytime you have access to good books or technology or the Internet at home, you can extend classroom impact," says Montgomery. "You see those kids who have access to resource material to prepare papers at home have a definite advantage. It is a critical factor trying to accumulate sets of laptops for kids and families that can''t afford them on a checkout basis. It''s a partial answer to a unique problem and I am concerned about it in terms of the haves and have-nots."
Many schools like Captain Cooper in Big Sur have begun to implement computer lending programs for students and parents without access to home computers.
"We are filling the need somewhat, and one of the main reasons schools have to invest in technology is for the kids who won''t have computers at home," says Behan. "They need to be comfortable with technology early to develop confidence in their skills and I hope schools can fill the gap and do more."
For poorer schools like Marina Del Mar Elementary in Marina, it has been especially difficult securing sufficient computers for use in school, let alone giving students access to computers outside the classroom.
"Marina Del Mar is in a fairly poor community where a great number of students don''t have access to technology at home," says Principal Carol Gurule. "To some degree, technology in schools is an end in itself so kids can be prepared. Kids who have computers at home take what they learn at school and expand on that. There''s a definite disadvantage to kids who don''t have access at home."
The problem of access to home computers is especially acute in the predominantly Hispanic, South County school districts, where a home computer is an unheard-of luxury.
At the Greenfield Union School District, Hal Hegwer estimates that very few of the students in his district, 91 percent of which is Latino, have access to computers outside of school.
"When you look at the demographics of the community and income level, only about 20 percent have access to a home computer," says Hegwer. "Our students'' primary access is through school and the library."
According to Chualar Union Elementary School Director of Special Projects Jack Davidson, only one in 60 families have a computer at home.
Beyond the desirability of providing students with access to a computer at home, district officials say that students in lower grade levels must not be allowed to fall behind in terms of computer preparedness at upper grade levels.
"I think we have a large gap to fill in the sense of providing education technology to elementary and middle school students," says Dr. Fernando Elizondo, superintendent of the Salinas Union High School District, which was awarded $1.2 million in Digital High grant money. "We have to do more to put computers in the hands of each student and this is where home access becomes an important issue. Computer accessibility and parents being able to afford computers needs to become more of a reality."
With Monterey County school districts embarked on a promising, but uncertain educational future, there is a belief among many school officials that technology in the classroom will only be as effective as the teachers who use it.
"I believe computers have become an indispensable tool, but I truly believe you''ll never replace good teaching," says Tularcitos Elementary School Principal Karin Camilli. "As we become more comfortable and adept using it as a tool, we''ll be doing our children a great service. While computers bring opportunities for more resources for teachers, it is the teacher that is absolutely the critical element." cw