Parents to undergo Internet training Balto. County schools' initiative seen as most ambitious in nation

March 13, 1998|By Howard Libit | Howard Libit,SUN STAFF

Taking up a presidential challenge, the Baltimore County schools launch an extensive program this month to teach parents about the Internet -- the first large system in the country to do so, national Internet experts and county educators say.

"Parents read to their children and parents do math homework with their children, but when it comes to computers, children usually know more than their parents," says Della Curtis, coordinator of the schools' library information services office. "We need to change that and teach parents to work with their children on the Internet just like they do in reading and math."

Baltimore County's Parent Internet Education initiative -- which will begin with a survey of parents' knowledge of computers -- will expand to workshops for parents in schools, a town meeting, a family computer expo and a series of cable television programs.

Educators hope the program will help families that have computers and make the Internet more accessible to those that can't afford to buy them.

The school system's plans follow up on President Clinton's 1997 On-line Summit, in which he issued a challenge to make the Internet more "family-friendly." The president and national and local educators say it is critical for all children to learn about the Internet if they are to be prepared for the technological workplace of the 21st century.

National experts in family use of the Internet say Baltimore County's initiative is far more extensive than anything under way in any other large district in the country. The county's plans were held up as a national model this month at a U.S. Senate briefing on the Internet, children and pornography.

"I'm not aware of any school system doing this type of thing, and I applaud Baltimore County for its efforts," says Debbie Mahoney, founder and president of the California-based group Safeguarding Our Children-United Mothers. "I'm hoping that what they're doing becomes a catalyst for other districts to do the same."

The county's plan to teach parents is a particularly significant step to improve safety for children on the Internet, says Mahoney, whose group is dedicated to the prevention of child abuse, particularly involving the Internet.

"You can try as many technical solutions as you want, but the best way to protect your children when they're using computers is to understand what they're doing and pay attention to it," Mahoney says.

'Never had training'

With computers, county school officials say most families are like Kenwood High School sophomore Ciara DiSeta and her father, Richard. They bought a new computer in October, and Ciara is far ahead of her father in using the Internet.

"I'm 52, and I never had any training in computers," Richard acknowledges. "All parents need to know more about it."

Ciara adds: "My Dad will try to go online, and then he won't know what to do and I'll have to help him. I think it's really important for parents to know how it works so they can observe and help their children."

The school system this month will survey selected parents in 35 schools throughout the county -- about 8,000 families. The results likely will show a lack of familiarity among most parents, even those with computers in their home, says Parry Aftab, a New Jersey-based international technology and cyberspace lawyer and author of "A Parent's Guide to the Internet."

Aftab -- who also spoke at the Senate briefing -- says the survey of parents will be the most extensive one in the country.

"It's going to be a wonderful opportunity for the district to learn about the needs of its parents when it comes to the Internet and then design ways to help meet those needs," says Aftab, who agreed to serve on the steering committee for the Baltimore County initiative. "This is the first time in this country that a large group of educational professionals has gotten together to try to educate so many parents."

Family Expo planned

Aftab -- who is in the midst of setting up a series of family Internet meetings across the country -- is helping the system organize a Family Internet Expo for June 5-7 at Towson University, attracting major Internet providers and software companies whom she met through writing her book.

School officials also are aiming to attract local corporate help for their efforts, looking for area companies that have computer laboratories suitable for evening and weekend parent classes.

Other planned activities include a family Internet town meeting using the distance learning classrooms in many county schools. Students in Randallstown High School's mass communications magnet program also are following three families through the process of learning about computers for a program planned for the county's educational cable television channel, Curtis says.

The school system eventually will train Internet education teams at schools to teach parents, Curtis says. One of the goals will be to ensure that families that can't afford to purchase home computers have training in the technology.

"The Internet is such a powerful educational tool," Curtis says. "We can't afford to let any child be left behind, and we can't allow their parents to get left behind, either. With parents, education can be so much more effective."

Pub Date: 3/13/98

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