Computers light up, and young faces glow 9 schools' labs slow in coming

February 12, 1993|By Mark Bomster | Mark Bomster,Staff Writer

Schaz Allen, age 7, sits at the Tandy 433SX computer in Malcolm X Elementary School's computer lab in Baltimore, attentive to the voice on his headphones.

On his computer screen is a math problem, displayed with the kind of colorful icons and figures you'd find in a home computer game.

The second-grader studies the display, punches his answer into the keyboard and, voila! -- a blue ribbon appears at the corner of the screen, telling him that he has answered correctly.

"It's like playing a real Nintendo and it's educational, because you do math and rhymes and stuff," says Schaz, one of the nearly 100 Malcolm X students who have started training on the school's new educational computers in the last two weeks. "It's like a game."

Those computers, six months in coming, are a long-awaited milestone in the school system's controversial school-privatization experiment, known as "Tesseract."

This year, Malcolm X is one of nine city schools being run by Education Alternatives Inc., a Minneapolis company that last summer landed a five-year management contract worth $26.7 million this year.

Using city teachers and administrators, along with college-educated classroom interns, the company is phasing in its educational model.

The EAI package includes two instructors in each classroom, small-group instruction and education plans that are custom-designed for each student. It also promises efficient maintenance and financial operations.

The project also promised computers in each classroom and computer labs in each school as well as and copiers, fax machines and teachers' telephones.

When operational, the computer system will offer math and language instruction in the classroom, while letting administrators easily track students' attendance and academic progress.

Tesseract got off to a rocky start in September, amid complaints that EAI used high-handed personnel practices and failed to consult sufficiently with the community.

There has been less grumbling in recent months. But many unionized teachers continue to complain about training, delays in hiring interns and changes in working conditions. And some parents still say they want more consultation with the company.

The company admits that the technology has been slow in getting into the nine schools. Originally, company officials had hoped to get the computers wired and running throughout the system by January. But it was November before EAI signed a deal with Sunnyvale, Calif.-based Computer Curriculum Corp. to provide more than 1,100 computers and software.

In recent weeks, the computer screens have begun to flash on at Tesseract schools throughout the city. About 200 computers are currently operational, with computer labs working in all of the schools, says John T. Golle, EAI's chairman and chief executive officer.

The next step is to install central computers in the administrative offices of each school, and then hook up computers in each classroom.

"We expect to have the whole system up and running in the next 30 days," says Mr. Golle, who attributed the delay to "getting physical control of the facility."

The total cost, systemwide: about $6 million for hardware, software and installation, including high-tech security equipment that cost $142,000 at Harlem Park Middle School alone.

Malcolm X has received 31 computers for its 420 students. Twenty three are located in the school's computer lab and the rest are stacked in boxes, soon go online in the classrooms.

Though some parents had been impatient to see the new technology, the wait didn't bother Myrtle Washington, school principal.

"I'm just pleased that we have it this soon," says Mrs. Washington. This year is "the transitional year, this is the first venture. . . . I expect everything to happen this year."

Already, students are being trained in Computer Curriculum's colorful math and reading programs, a sophisticated system that lets them learn at their own pace, while giving teachers a detailed tracking report on each student's progress.

In the Malcolm X lab, for example, one student is filling in the blanks of a reading and language exercise, prompted by colorful cartoon-like illustrations, while another is working on a math problem.

All 18 of the second-graders appear attentive and absorbed.

Paper and pencil workbooks are just not the same, says Joyce Drummond, a paraprofessional who supervises the computer lab.

"You're talking modern technology here," she says of the computers. "Many of them are geared toward Nintendo at home. . . . I like to see the smiles on their faces when they know they've gotten it correct."

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