It's not much, but it's best that the parents can do


March 10, 1996|By Elise Armacost

VERA MCCULLOUGH, the most tireless volunteer you'll ever meet, has invited me to Brooklyn Park Elementary School to see the computer lab parents have worked so hard to create. "What you see here," she says with a sweep of her arm, "is a bunch of junk."

Oh, make no mistake, she says, 20-odd ancient IBM PCs are better than nothing. Still, she says, they're junk. Dinosaurs. A hodgepodge of outdated technology gathered from donors -- local businesses, the National Security Agency -- that have moved on to state-of-the-art equipment.

Some of the PCs have floppies, some have hard drives. "You never know what's going to come up" on the screen, Mrs. McCullough says. "Sometimes the programs work, and sometimes they don't."

Mrs. McCullough teaches 14 computer classes on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, though she's not a teacher per se. She's a 66-year-old grandmother who has made a career out of volunteering. For the last seven years, she has been a bona fide member of the faculty at Brooklyn Park, though she's never drawn a paycheck. When it comes to computers, the real teachers turn to her for advice.

That's because Vera McCullough knows her stuff. She doesn't have fancy degrees but she's got basic smarts, which are usually more valuable. What she knows about computers she TC taught herself. "I was just interested in what they could do," she says. "I used them for word processing, for writing letters to the editor. I'd pop the top off that thing to see what's ticking inside."

The Brooklyn Park lab, Mrs. McCullough says, reflects the efforts of working-class parents who did the best they could with what they had. It also reflects everything that's wrong with computer education in county public schools, where computer literacy is now spoken in the same breath as the three "Rs" but where parents are left to beg, borrow or buy equipment themselves. The result: No school has the same stuff. Some enjoy brand-new machines, thanks to affluent parents and generous corporate donors. Others end up with junk.

"It's ridiculous. There's no uniformity in any of the programs here. Nobody from the Board of Education has ever come in and said, 'What programs are you running on those machines?' You start a computer lab, and you are pretty much on your own."

Once, when computers were still a novelty, there wasn't a problem with parents holding bake sales or collecting grocery store tapes to raise money for computers. But increasingly computer literacy is considered a basic. And if that's the case, it isn't up to parents or volunteers to provide computers and teach computer classes. The school system should be providing the same tools to children in every school.

Unfortunately, the bake-sale trend -- a nationwide phenomenon as local governments everywhere struggle with flat revenue streams and revulsion to taxes -- shows no sign of abating. State legislation designed to encourage this practice is currently floating around the State House. Under a bill sponsored by Del. James Rzepkowski, R-Glen Burnie, the state would match 20 percent of funds raised by parents and private donors for school computers.

This program, Mr. Rzepkowski says, would serve as a carrot -- an enticement to PTAs and other groups to come up with money for computers -- as a well as a reward for those who make the effort. These are noble intentions.

Exacerbating inequities

Nonetheless, programs like this are bad for school systems because they exacerbate inequities between schools; those in affluent or active communities get better while others fall further behind. School systems, instead of assuming responsibility for providing basic educational tools, are allowed to cede that job to parents.

Here in Anne Arundel, officials are working on a plan to bring modern computers to every school. Ironically, Mrs. McCullough says, they've made this goal more expensive than it needs to be by insisting on a fancy computer network. The Advanced School Automation Project will cost tens of millions of dollars. Taxpayers may be buying more technology than they need to give students basic computer skills -- depending, of course, on the definition of "basic skills," which local educators have yet to hammer out.

"If I were running the school system," Mrs. McCullough says, "I'd start with the basics." Buy up-to-date machinery, but moderately priced stuff, without bells and whistles intended for techno-buffs. On second thought, she says, she would buy a couple with bells and whistles and put them in the media center, where kids could get a taste of using them.

Forget about computer labs, she says. They're a phony environment. Put the computers in the classroom, where kids can use them in a practical context. Soon, clicking in and out of computer programs would be as natural as popping tapes in and out of the VCR. That's how computer education should work. Instead, Vera McCullough's got a bunch of old PCs sitting on tables parents built and paid for themselves. Junk. "But if we didn't have this," she says, "we wouldn't have anything."

Elise Armacost is The Sun's editorial writer in Anne Arundel County.

Pub Date: 3/10/96

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