Despite its high-tech theme, Dr. Samuel L. Banks High's lack of resources shows digital divide among area schools

Working to get students plugged into technology

November 11, 2005|By SARA NEUFELD | SARA NEUFELD,SUN REPORTER

Dr. Samuel L. Banks High in Northeast Baltimore bills itself as a school focused on technology.

But the school has about 700 students and only 60 computers, nearly half of which don't work or don't have Internet access, teachers and students say. There are three printers, and for weeks this fall, none of them had ink.

One teacher, Brad Fields, got permission from the principal to solicit donated computers and wire classrooms for Internet access himself. On the weekends, Fields and other teachers drive around the state to pick up donations.

"I'm not sure why we were named the research and technology school if we weren't given tools for research and technology," said Fields, who teaches geometry.

Frank DeStefano, the city school system's deputy chief academic officer, acknowledges that the situation at Banks is "inadequate." He said the system placed an order in June for 60 wireless laptops for Banks, as well as 30 to 60 laptops each for W.E.B. DuBois High, Reginald F. Lewis High, Thurgood Marshall High, Vivien T. Thomas Medical Arts Academy and Augusta Fells Savage Institute of Visual Arts.

But the computers have not been delivered, and DeStefano said he did not know the cause of the holdup.

He also said Banks is scheduled to be wired for Internet access in every classroom by March.

The lack of resources at Banks highlights an enormous disparity, not only between Baltimore and suburban schools but also within the city. At Baltimore's showcase Digital Harbor High, the other city school focused on technology, there are 432 computers for 860 students, school officials said.

In schools statewide, there's a computer for every 4.3 students.

Asked about access to computers at Samuel Banks High, Kristen Lewis, a 16-year-old junior, responded, "We need them bad." Computers are not only in short supply at the school, but many of the ones there are useless for doing homework, she said, adding: "They don't have a mouse or they don't print or they can't get turned on or they need work."

Added Kristina Seals, also 16 and a junior: "There's not enough of them. When we have to do projects, we can't go on the Internet."

Banks, named after a longtime city schools administrator who advocated strongly for African-Americans, is one of three schools that was created when Northern High School broke into smaller parts in 2002. Like other small high schools around the city, Banks last year adopted a theme - research and technology - to distinguish it from other schools in the area, said Principal Anthony Harold.

When Banks adopted its high-tech mission, DeStefano said he was concerned that it wouldn't have the resources to support it. He said he hopes to eventually see Banks have as many computers as Digital Harbor, though the schools have different missions. While Digital Harbor trains students for technical careers, Banks strives to use technology to support research, school officials said.

Harold said computer literacy is a student's "passport to success," and he dreams that, one day, Banks will have one computer for every two students. At the school his son attends, Mount Hebron High in Howard County, he said computers are hooked up in every classroom.

The state Education Department has a target of one computer for every five students.

At Banks, there is a three-week wait list for a class to use a computer lab, according to a sign-up sheet posted on the wall. Robert Cross, a 16-year-old junior, does much of his classwork on a computer at the public library.

Robert is one of a majority of Banks students who do not have computers at home. Technology teacher Felicia Wisseh-Bryant said she surveyed her students, and found only about 15 percent have Internet-connected home computers. Most have cell phones that handle text messages.

In a room with 23 computers, 17 with Internet access as of last week, Wisseh-Bryant teaches three introduction to computer technology classes. In two of those classes, only a few students have to share machines, but the third has an enrollment of 34.

Harold said students started showing up voluntarily to Saturday detention last school year so they could use the computers. He then started staffing a computer lab Saturday mornings, but he had to discontinue the practice this year for lack of money. Wisseh-Bryant now opens a lab to students for 45 minutes twice a week after school. A computer club is starting this month.

Harold said he wants to train his staff in how to integrate technology into teaching. But with 20 of his 42 teachers in their first year on the job, he's focusing the school's staff development sessions on basics such as classroom management. On the upside, the young teachers are already adept at using computer technology.

Harold said the school has made significant progress in the past year. When he started as principal in the summer of 2004, the school had only a few dozen computers. Then Citicorp donated 30 refurbished computers, but they sat in boxes for a few months until Mayor Martin O'Malley visited last winter and dispatched a city information-technology team to set them up.

Fields said he and the other teachers have collected about 12 used computers so far, but most are not hooked up because of a lack of Internet connections.

"We're moving into a Web-based information age, and we're using industrial-age teaching resources," Fields said, adding that Banks students "know somebody doesn't care enough about them to get them resources."

sara.neufeld@baltsun.com

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