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Computers Link Homes and Schools in California

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A school district in California's Silicon Valley is installing what could be the nation's first computer link between home and school, and the officials who have started the program say they expect it to spread quickly across the state.

A software program in a central (or "mainframe") computer will allow students and parents in the Mountain View-Los Altos Union High School District to use home computers to check school records and obtain instant advice on high-school and college programs. Officials say they expect the experimental system to be operating by the spring semester of this school year.

Designed as a senior thesis project by a student at California State Polytechnical University in San Luis Obispo, the pilot effort is being paid for with a $75,000 grant from the Atari Foundation in Sunnyvale, Calif. The software involved will be adaptable to computers produced by a wide range of companies, Atari officials say.

For the district's superintendent, Paul Sakamoto, the project is "a far-out dream" that has quickly become reality and will significantly change the way schools operate on a daily basis.

"Like others who don't know much about computers, I thought this was a pipe dream, I didn't really think it had a chance of working," says Mr. Sakamoto. "But it's going to be able to help with counseling and scheduling by next February. We've been working on it for three months and we just got our first check [from Atari] three weeks ago."

Mr. Sakamoto says the program could be extended to the entire county soon after the Los Altos-Mountain View system is in place. And he says that the programs will be able to expand "indefinitely" because of the add-on nature of microcomputer technology.

Already, Sunnydale's superintendent of schools, Robert Smith, has indicated an interest in becoming involved with the Mountain View-Los Altos system. He met last week with the people working on the project and says he will make a decision about the experiment soon.

The concept should be particularly useful to districts that have had to reduce or eliminate their guidance programs, Mr. Sakamoto says. He says that counselors now spend an average of one-half hour on the routine review of a student's records that would take the computer just minutes.

When the first phase of the program is completed, the district's 3,500 students and their parents will be able to hook up their home microcomputers with the mainframe computer by telephone. After entering a password, they will be able to get a complete reading of the student's academic record and school activities.

But more important, officials say, is that the program will tell students what courses they need to complete to graduate and to compete for admission to particular colleges.

"Suppose a student wants to go to George Washington University and major in history," says Dean Brown, the president of Picodyne Corp., a consulting firm in Sunnyvale that is also involved in the project. "The computer can tell him that gw requires so many hours of history and calculus and foreign relations, and that those courses would only be taught next semester [at the high school]."

"That student could then decide what he should do," Mr. Brown adds. "Maybe he can't take those classes, so he calls up another college [on the computer]."

The software program will also be able to match students with possible careers by evaluating their aptitude and experience in classes and after-school activities.

Mr. Brown says the first program will also be used for administrative functions and will permit computerization of basic record-keeping and evaluation in classes, at-tendance records, and school calendars. Future programs will computerize lesson plans and such administrative data as demographic trends, teacher evaluations, and class-size patterns.

Bruce Gauthier, the college student designing the program, became involved in the project early when his father, Henry Gauthier, president of the local school board, was consulted by Mr. Sakamoto and others on their idea. The program's design will be the basis for the younger Mr. Gauthier's required thesis for graduation.

Mr. Sakamoto says the district expects up to 90 percent of the homes in the area to have personal computers by the end of the decade. Families that cannot afford microcomputers will be able to call up their records on microcomputers available in public and school libraries.

Officials at Atari and Picodyne have assured the school officials that the system would be as immune to infiltration as the present method of record-keeping. But Mr. Sakamoto admits that "with all the smart kids around here who know about computers," it is possible that records could be entered and illegally changed.

The most surprising feature of the project, Mr. Brown says, is that such an idea has not been tried before.

"We don't think we're inventing anything new," he says. "We're coordinating existing technology so that it's 'human friendly.' It was hard to do earlier because the hardware wasn't cost-effective. Now there are so many people who have home computers."

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