CHESTERTOWN -- When students return to classes Aug. 31, Maryland's smallest school system will leap from a computing backwater to the forefront of high-tech education.
Thanks to a contract with a California firm, rural Kent County, with only 2,600 students, will have an average of 50 computers in each of its eight schools, compared with only 18 when students left for summer vacation.
And Kent teachers who undergo a weeklong computer training session this summer will receive a free Macintosh LC II computer -- the same machine their students have in class -- for their home use. The Apple computers will belong to the teachers even if they quit the school system.
The dramatic turnaround is the result of an agreement struck between Kent school officials and Computer Curriculum Corp. (CCC), a California-based developer of educational computer software.
With support from the county's elected officials and the local teachers' organization, school officials have agreed to pay CCC $275,000 annually over the next five years for the equipment, software and training necessary to move the state's smallest school system to the vanguard in computerized instruction.
Before the agreement, Baltimore City, with an average of 15 computers per school, was the only Maryland school system with fewer computers per classroom than Kent County.
The contract provides 240 new classroom computers, another 175 computers for teachers, and lab equipment for the six Kent schools that did not already have computer laboratories.
In return, CCC expects to use Kent County to tout the effectiveness of its classroom software to potential customers, according to Sandra M. Davis, the company's marketing representative.
Ms. Davis said the company's innovative software has been so successful in raising student achievements in the classroom that some schools are using the programs to teach algebra in the sixth grade.
Dr. Gordon Browning, computer technology coordinator for Kent's schools, called the new program "probably the most significant educational endeavor we've been involved in."
He said he expects that students with learning problems will benefit most from the software, which is designed to hold the interest of a generation tantalized by the dazzling graphics and sound of computerized games and videos.
All students will have increased access to computers, but the target group is the 1,900 students in kindergarten through eighth grade.
Each student will spend 20 minutes every day in front of a computer, compared with last year's schedule of one class per week over nine weeks.
In Maryland, CCC already has computer software contracts in Calvert and Queen Anne's counties.
The firm, a division of the Simon & Schuster Education Group, is also ready to sign a contract with Wicomico County.
The Kent County plan differs from other county projects because Kent will have the most modern classroom equipment available from Apple and the latest full-color, animated CCC teaching programs for math and reading lessons.
What appears to be an abrupt leap into state-of-the-art computer instruction actually took several years of planning, Dr. Browning said.
There were budget problems, with the county looking first to private businesses and non-profit groups to donate computers.
And there was a reluctance on the part of some teachers to use computers in their classrooms.
Gradually, computers gained a broader acceptance and school officials moved ahead to budget $275,000 to add computer labs to two other schools this year.
It was during talks with CCC that school administrators decided to drop the one-year plan and invest in the five-year project.
"Since we live in a technological age, it's real important for the kids to have access to things like that," said Betty Drew, president of the Kent Teachers Association, which backed the project.