Smaller school districts lead investing in computers

July 30, 1995|By Carol L. Bowers and Shirley Leung | Carol L. Bowers and Shirley Leung,Sun Staff Writers

Some of Maryland's smaller school systems are speeding down the information superhighway, leaving larger school districts eating their cyberdust.

Despite comparatively smaller budgets, Kent, Queen Anne's and Worcester counties began investing in computers five or more years ago. Now, their students "surf" the Internet, moving via modem through an international network of databases.

"I'm very proud of what we've done in computers in our county," said Robert W. Lathroum, who is in charge of computer technology in Queen Anne's County schools, where each school has a lab. "It hasn't been a hard sell."

Linda Roberts, director of the office of educational technology for the U.S. Department of Education, said usually it's the larger, wealthier school districts that take the lead in investing in classroom computers.

But in some cases, as in Maryland, she said, smaller school districts have moved ahead more quickly because "technology becomes the way to equalize access to information and to broaden the base of curriculum in the smaller school districts."

The larger school systems in Maryland, including Baltimore City and Anne Arundel, Baltimore, Montgomery, and Prince George's counties, are now installing computer labs -- even as trends are changing and computer consultants are recommending computers be placed in individual classrooms for more integrated use in lessons.

But education leaders in the metropolitan Baltimore counties point out that with limited funds, they must begin somewhere, and labs ensure that every student will have at least a few hours of access to computers a week. This, they say, is better than trying to equip all classrooms, which could result in inequities because they are limited in the number of computers they can buy each year.

"It was infuriating to the community that we didn't have computers for all our students," said Lani Seikaly, director for the Department of Educational Media and Technology for Montgomery County schools, about to enter the second year of a six-year buying frenzy.

"There's an increasing disparity among students who do have technology at home and those who don't," she said, adding that schools are the place to "level the playing field" because every home won't have money for a computer.

Generally, the larger school systems, such as Montgomery and Anne Arundel, have been slower to spend money on computers for classrooms, citing the high cost.

Most have relied on PTAs and corporations to supply some of their computers. In some cases, the donated machines make up much as one-third of a school district's inventory.

The result: a hodgepodge ranging from the earliest Apples, Ataris and Commodores to IBM-compatible computers with CD-ROM.

The variety and age of the machines makes it difficult to cruise the Internet, and take advantage of other new technology such as the WorldWideWeb and CD-ROM.

In Carroll County, for example, all but 500 of the school system's 2,600 classroom computers are outdated and cannot be used in the computer network they're trying to build, said William J. Piercy, superintendent of instructional technology.

Kenneth R. Smith, former director of instructional technology for Baltimore City schools, said it's not a "lack of desire" that has kept Maryland's larger school districts from investing as heavily in computers as the smaller subdivisions.

"But there are so many other things you want," said Mr. Smith, now coordinator of technology for Worcester County schools.

"By the time you get down to it, you have to fund a school nurse or a computer," he said. "It's a decision no one wants to make. You need both, but you can only fund one."

Education leaders in the smaller counties say they also faced tough choices, but decided to place a priority on buying computers.

"What are you typing on?" Mr. Lathroum asked, referring to the clickety-clacks he heard during a recent telephone interview. "That's the tool [students] are going to live with. You can teach kids about computers, but you also have to let them use computers as a tool."

Queen Anne's got a head start in 1984 as one of five school districts chosen to participate in a state-funded project to put computers in classrooms.

When the state money dried up, Queen Anne's kept buying and upgrading its computers -- spending $1.5 million over the past five years to provide one computer for every eight students.

In that same period, Worcester County spent $1 million for 900 computers. Now, there's one for every seven students, and they're constantly upgraded. At the opposite end of the computer spectrum, Anne Arundel County has one computer for every 18 students, Baltimore City has one for every 16 students.

To make Worcester's investment go farther, the school system avoided buying name-brand computers such as IBMs or Macintoshes. "We figure we're going to have to replace them in five years whether the equipment is a name brand or not," Mr. Smith said.

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