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Spurring 'Local Annenbergs'

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The late Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives Tip O'Neill is reputed to have coined the oft-quoted phrase, "All politics is local." As many a New England town or school district has discovered in recent years, local politics, when it comes to school budgets, can be synonymous with defeat and underfunding of educational initiatives, and all too often local school districts end up seeking desperately to simply maintain their existing programs. Visionary programs and restructuring attempts that seek to respond to the contemporary and 21st-century needs of students, staff, and the community are all too often relegated to the pages of professional journals or the weekend educators' workshop.

While the planned infusion of $500 million into national school-reform initiatives by the philanthropist Walter H. Annenberg provides a reassuring jolt of momentum for educational change, and though grants from this largess will undoubtedly have an impact on some schools and programs, in the vastness of our nation's system of education the impact on any one school is likely to be negligible or nonexistent. As Mr. Annenberg himself said when announcing his "challenge to the nation" late last year, it will take individual giving, corporate giving, and foundation giving to do the job. "Those who control sizable funds should feel an obligation to join this crusade for the betterment of our country," he said. But where has this happened at the local level? Who is taking the lead?

We are also at a technological juncture in our educational history, one which finds the Clinton Administration touting the benefits of the information superhighway, a vast network of resources that has the potential to transform the ways in which Americans communicate, receive information, and connect with the world. As our students and staffs prepare to live and work in the "information age" of the early 21st century, they need to become expert in the skills of accessing and managing the cornucopia of data which will be available to them on-line and through a variety of technologies. Similarly, they will need to have the skills to critically evaluate such data and articulately design presentations that analyze it. How many schools can say they are doing this now? Given the dearth of public financial support for education, how many schools can even realistically approach the issue?

For too many students in too many classrooms, the experience of technology in the school continues to be the stand-alone computer, often woefully out of date, which sits unconnected to any other computer or electronic-information resource. Typically, these machines are in each classroom, either for teacher use or as an occasional carrot for the students. Most students and educators in America do not receive sustained exposure to the power of technology as an educational tool as important to them as the pen and pencil, and educators fail to see the relevance of this now-common business tool to their professional lives or their educational roles with children.

Some technologically savvy critics of traditional schooling, such as Lewis J. Perelman, argue that most reform leaders are wrong when they view the information revolution as simply a "sideshow." "The reality is that a new generation of technology has blown the social role of learning completely inside out," Mr. Perelman writes in School's Out. Our present mode of "educating" is hopelessly outmoded, in this view, and doomed to be overcome and extinguished by the immediacy of technology as a vast, easily manipulated personal resource.

Can schools afford to sit idly by and devolve into increasingly meaningless centers whose main function is child care, while private schools siphon off the affluent and middle-class into re-created learning environments that tap both the seemingly limitless resources available through technology and the creative potential of the individual student? Given the track record of significant educational change in American schools over the last half-century, it is likely that stasis will out.

How then to marry these two movements--one of technological challenge, the other an Annenberg-style gantlet of private, corporate, and foundation funding--at a local level to achieve significant change?

At the small Vermont elementary school where I am principal, an experiment in private sponsorship for public education is under way which may serve as a prototype for other similar experiments around the nation.

Little more than a year ago, the Flood Brook School in Londonderry, Vt., was typical of many elementary schools. We had computers, but these were stand-alones, one to a classroom, which were at best a teacher's occasional resource and seldom a tool for student learning. Today, Flood Brook's 314 students and staff of 25 full-time educators has a state-of-the-art computer network. There are four computers in each of the school's 20 classrooms, as well as a teacher workstation in each classroom. Teachers also have a laptop component to use at home. Other features include a community lab for daily access to the technology by the school's public; modem capability from each of the school's classrooms; and a telephone on each teacher's desk to enable ease of communication between home and school. Through the work of the staff, this array of technological resources, while still in its early stages of implementation, has begun to radically alter the ways teachers teach and students approach their work.

Yet, this sudden infusion of technology into the life of the school and community did not come through an epiphany on the part of the public. It was the vision of one local philanthropist, who made Flood Brook's move into technology as an educational tool a reality.

Sam Lloyd, a local businessman, regional actor, and former Vermont state representative, approached our school board with a bold idea after the school's most recent bond vote for an expansion and renovation of the school had failed miserably: If the public would support the renovation and expansion of the school, he would create a million-dollar trust fund solely for the purpose of infusing technology into the lives of the students at the Flood Brook School. It was a bold challenge, and one some Vermonters considered blackmail. But it succeeded.

Mr. Lloyd came to technology with no particular vision of how it could enhance the capacity of students to learn and no preconceived concept of how the technology should be designed within the new building. He left those decisions to a committee of educators and community members, who worked to research and design a plan for the infusion of technology into student learning and staff development. He did see that technology was a key tool of business and did not doubt that it could be of importance to student learning. Mr. Lloyd came to this effort with a clear sense that technology was the wave of the future and that, for our children to succeed in the undefined future, they needed to become familiar with its uses and resources. He also came with his financial resources and a tremendous leap of faith in the ability of educators and community members to create a vision for student learning.

Flood Brook is now poised to work with students at a new level of analysis, creation, and information access through its utilization of this technology. Vermont's commissioner of education, Richard Mills, visited the school to talk with students, staff members, administrators, and school board members about the school's technology plan, and his reflections on that visit are instructive. "Today it's commonplace to see technology as the new dividing line between the haves and the have-nots," he said. "Yet one doesn't have to spend long in a school such as Flood Brook to wonder if the old language used to describe inequities in school finance might have to change. I'm beginning to think that places which have the knowledge tools deserve the title of school. Other places may soon be called something else."

Sam Lloyd is, as he has been called, an "exceptionally committed community leader." But what he has done at our school also highlights the key issues of school financing: equity of funding and committed community leaders. For Vermont, the "Lloyd Challenge" is a powerful local commitment to complement the national Annenberg challenge. Clearly, across the states of the nation and at too many local levels, funding to support significant educational change and initiatives is unlikely to be forthcoming. If a school such as Flood Brook becomes an isolate on the educational landscape, then its students will develop into an educational elite and experiments such as this will perpetuate the radical disparities in student opportunities.

While not every community has a Sam Lloyd who is willing to commit a million dollars to student growth and development, in many communities there are individuals and business groups that could establish a unique financial relationship with their local school to bring forth major technological change for its students. If the Lloyd experience at Flood Brook is any barometer of success, a byproduct of this private-public relationship will be an enhanced realization by the whole community of its caretaker role in the lives of its children. Through the technology design and implementation, Flood Brook has encountered an increase in visits to the school by members of the community, and through these visits has come a strengthening of the bonds that link the public to its students.

It has become a glib clich‚ to say that "it takes a community to raise a child," and certainly in the mid-1990's, both regionally and nationally, all too often the community has abdicated its nurturing role. Yet, through the vision, commitment, and, yes, the financial backing of private individuals and corporate sponsors, it is possible to rekindle the school and community bonds, move schools away from the status quo, and provide students with the essential technological tools common in business, so that they can produce more effectively in the dawn of a new century. The stakes are too high to leave school funding and change solely in the hands of the public.

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