Schools eye computer network

May 19, 1994|By John Rivera | John Rivera,Sun Staff Writer

Anne Arundel school officials are dreaming of worldwide communications and access to untold amounts of information for schoolchildren, made possible with a computer system known as ASAP.

But County Council members, who listened attentively yesterday and said they would like to help, wondered where they would find the $1.6 million to pay for it.

"I've been looking at the budget, and it's a very tight budget," said Council Chairman C. Edward Middlebrooks. "What are you proposing we cut out of the budget to fund the ASAP program?"

Superintendent Carol S. Parham insisted that her budget is lean and that she could not offer anything to cut. "But by the same token, I could not pass up the opportunity to come before you and make the request," she said.

County Executive Robert R. Neall did not include money for ASAP in his $37.8 million capital budget for schools because budget officials said the request for the money came too late.

So, school officials have begun lobbying council members, who have the power to add money to the education budget.

"I can't overstate the importance which we place on this project," Dr. Parham said.

ASAP -- the Advanced School Automation Project -- is a five-year, $17.5 million effort to provide at least one large computer lab in every school and some mini-labs for certain disciplines.

All computers would be linked, and in turn connected to a main frame at the Board of Education headquarters building on Riva Road. The whole system could be connected to other local computer systems, such as the county library, the community college and the University of Maryland and even InterNet, an international computer system.

James Hamilton, principal of South River High School and chairman of the school system's technology task force, told the council that the advantages of the ASAP system go beyond the resources it offers students. Teachers could provide individualized instruction, calculate grades and provide students' progress reports.

And to the horror of many a student, parents would be able to verify homework assignments and check on their child's progress through a home computer with a modem.

School officials argued that Anne Arundel, which 10 years ago was a leader in school-based technology, has fallen woefully behind.

Much of the equipment is old and out-of-date, Dr. Hamilton said. Only 378 of the 919 computers in county high schools are new enough to be compatible with the proposed network, and a third of those are at one school.

Neighboring school districts spend an average of $4 million a year on their computer systems, Dr. Hamilton said. "As a result we're far behind other school districts in Maryland in using technology as an instructional tool," he said.

Gary Mauler, an engineer with Westinghouse, warned the council: "It's going to be embarrassing if we don't do something to get on board with this thing."

But Councilwoman Maureen Lamb worried that ASAP would turn out to be another ISIS, a $50 million integrated computer system that the county spent $4.3 million on before abandoning the project last year.

And she said she was skeptical of the cost estimates. "What you gave as the total cost I don't believe for one minute," she said.

Yet she and Mr. Middlebrooks said they wanted to help.

Mr. Middlebrooks challenged the council and school officials to find money "even if it means cutting some things to get this project going."

Ms. Lamb agreed. "Even if we can't do everything they want us to do this year," she said, "we ought to be able to find some money to get this thing started."

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