In the corner of a small, bright room decorated with basketball posters and anatomy charts, a computer printer pumps out a replica of the El Salvadoran flag. As the first band of blue emerges, Luciano Calles beams, smiling at his wife and two sons. "Play the national anthem now," he tells 14-year-old Juan.
"I couldn't imagine it--being able to hear my national anthem on the computer," says Calles, who emigrated with his wife from El Salvador in 1980. "It brought tears to my eyes."
That was more than three years ago, but the personal computer, with its graphics and audio capabilities, still amazes the Calles family. Their amazement is coupled with a sincere appreciation for the personal computer, which Bell Atlantic Corp. gave Juan in the summer of 1993 as part of an unusual technology trial sponsored by the telecommunications giant.
At the heart of this trial was an experiment to see how inner-city school children would perform if they had access to technology both at home and school. To that end, Bell Atlantic provided all 135 7th graders at the Christopher Columbus Middle School with IBM-compatible PCs.
The project also supplied computers for classrooms and for about 20 teachers and administrators to use at home.
The Union City Interactive Media Trial, as it's called, provides basic software and groupware so that students and their teachers can communicate, research on line, and collaborate in the learning process. The PCs are loaded with Microsoft Works, a word-processing program, Encarta, an electronic encyclopedia, and Lotus Notes, a groupware program that has electronic mail and database capabilities. At school, students can access the Internet through a local Bell Atlantic server. The software developers donated or loaned their products for the project.
Juan's class, now in 9th grade at Emerson High School, is the only cohort to have computers at home.
Like other families who received computers, the Calleses created a special place in their home for the new addition, converting one of the five rooms in their apartment into a virtual office, complete with two desks, reference books, study lamps, and a phone.
This year, Juan is taking only honors classes and his parents attribute his academic success largely to his technology-rich environment. "He's not the same student he was two or three years ago," his father says. "He was indifferent. Now, he is motivated, and his grades show that."
So far, it seems the home-school connection is helping Juan's classmates improve academically, too. Each year, 8th graders in New Jersey take the Early Warning Test, which gauges potential academic weaknesses. Last year, more students in Juan's class at Christopher Columbus Middle School passed the test than in any other district school. The class also got the district's highest mean scores in reading and writing, and the second highest in math.
In addition to the academic benefits, the computer has brought the family closer together, says Calles. Juan and his brother Daniel, a 10th grader, have taught him and his wife, Ana, how to write letters with the word processor, look things up in the multimedia encyclopedia, use e-mail to communicate with teachers, and read Christopher Columbus' on-line parent newsletter.
"The computer is a connection between all of us," Luciano Calles says. "It's something more I can share with my sons."
The Union City technology trial is also a feasibility study of how cutting-edge telecommunications technology can be brought into the nation's schools and homes. Specifically, Bell Atlantic has been testing a new generation of high-speed telephone lines that transform regular phone lines into ultra-sophisticated conduits capable of delivering voices, images, multimedia, and Internet access.
These "modems on steroids" as John Grady, the project's founder, describes them, are similar to a video-on-demand technology that the company is now testing in the Northern Virginia suburbs of Washington. In that trial, families use a keypad to punch in their requests for movies, sports events, and other television programming whenever they wish, 24 hours a day. But instead of connecting multimedia to a television, Grady explains, the Integrated Services Digital Network, or ISDN, in Union City delivers information to a computer. The ISDN also makes it possible for students, parents, and teachers to communicate and access information around the clock.
Whether at home or at school, students can use e-mail or tap into an electronic encyclopedia simply by clicking on one of the colorful icons that appears on their computer screen. At school, youngsters can slip onto the information highway by clicking another icon for the Internet. They cannot, however, cruise cyberspace at random; the system won't allow access to adult-oriented sites on the network.
Building this home-school learning network, and making it cost-effective, has involved considerable trial and error. At various points during the trial, students' homes and the school were rewired to determine which kind of telephone line worked best. The company began installing costly fiber-optic cable--a very thin glass strand capable of carrying massive amounts of information very quickly--but reverted to the more familiar copper wiring because of the expense.
"One of our objectives is to find an affordable product," says Kathleen E. Tully, the education manager for Bell Atlantic New Jersey. "If you want to sell something to a school district, you want to make sure it's worthwhile for them to spend their precious dollars on."
Another objective, one the company does not explicitly state, is to make the case on Capitol Hill that legislators should deregulate the telecommunications industry. A bill Congress is now considering would do just that, creating more competition between telephone, cable, and other industries, and freeing companies like Bell Atlantic to seek different markets for new services. Telecommunications companies contend they need deregulation to make it cost-effective for them to provide services to schools.
Originally slated as a two-year project, the trial has been extended through 1997. The extension will allow Union City educators to monitor the results of Juan Calles' class through the 10th grade as well as expand the project to other schools.
Union City looks across the Hudson River toward the Empire State Building in downtown Manhattan. More than 87,000 residents are packed into its 1.4 square miles, making it the nation's most densely populated city. A predominantly Hispanic, blue-collar city, many residents are recent immigrants from countries like the Dominican Republic or El Salvador. More than 75 percent of the district's students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches. But in spite of the poverty, the streets are neat, pedestrians are jovial, and many of the row houses sport colorful flower boxes.
"You look around, and you won't see any graffiti or broken glass," observes Fred Carrigg, the executive director for academic programs for the Union City board of education. "It's not like the ghetto. People here still believe in the American dream."
As Carrigg knows, dreams do come true in Union City.
Seven years ago, student performance over all was so dismal that the state threatened to take over the district. Today, however, the city's 11 schools and more than 8,500 students are on the upswing.
District officials proudly list their improvements: Attendance for both students and teachers is above the state average, the annual student-mobility rate has dropped from 44 percent to 22 percent (only 12 percent at Christopher Columbus Middle School), and elementary school students are exceeding state and national test norms.
Observers, including U.S. Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley, regularly visit Christopher Columbus to see how this poor, overwhelmingly Hispanic community resurrected itself to become an innovator of systemic reform. Riley often touts the program as an example of how technology can help improve student performance.
But the changes in Union City are the result of more than just a technological fix. The reform effort began in earnest during the summer of 1989 when Carrigg set in motion a restructuring of the entire system. Central to that effort was a shift from traditional textbook-based instruction to a whole-language curriculum.
Rather than buy textbooks for each student, the district bought a limited number of a variety of textbooks for students to share and compare information. At the same time, Union City decided to invest heavily in updating the district's computer laboratories, purchasing 775 Macintosh computers between 1990 and 1994, bringing the student-computer ratio to 11 to 1, far better than average in the state.
In addition, the school day was restructured into blocks of time, student learning became cooperative, classes were redesigned to be cross-curricular, and teachers were encouraged to ACT more like coaches.
Funding for the restructuring came from several sources. In 1988, voters in the municipality passed a $27 million bond issue to renovate antiquated schools. In 1990, the state passed the Quality Education Act, which authorized the transfer of funds from wealthier districts to poor districts like Union City. Due to changes in eligibility requirements, Union City also became eligible for federal Title I funds.
Carrigg notes that as students and parents have become more engaged in their schools, vandalism has plummeted, freeing up millions of dollars that have been plowed into expanding the district's technology.
In 1992, Bell Atlantic chose Union City for its technology trial. The corporate outreach was partly in response to the passage of the 1992 Telecommunications ACT of New Jersey. The legislation provided the catalyst for this initiative by creating financial and regulatory incentives to disseminate advanced technology, particularly in schools, says Rahman Karriemn, who oversaw the project's second year for Bell Atlantic.
Eager for corporate partners, district officials welcomed the experiment. Coincidentally, the district had recently bought an old parochial school it planned to convert into Christopher Columbus Middle School. Bell Atlantic technicians were able to wire the school, and its opening in September 1993 coincided with the trial's launch.
Bell Atlantic will not reveal how much has been spent on the project, but "it has involved significant resources--in the millions," says Tully, the project's manager.
It is important that educators keep this trial in perspective, Carrigg says. "Technology is a tool, not a philosophy. It facilitates something else. You can't isolate it--it's meaningless unless it's integrated into the curriculum."
His colleagues at Bell Atlantic agree. "You can't throw technology against the wall and expect it to stick," says Karriemn, who oversaw the trial in 1994. "You have to develop the skills of individuals in the schools in order to make it work."
Another way the district tries to strengthen the home-school connection is through Parent University, a collection of workshops designed to help parents develop better life and job skills. Several afternoons a week, parents come to Christopher Columbus to learn how to use computers and basic software. While their parents master the basics, students work nearby on homework assignments or group research projects.
In addition, over the next three years, the Bell Atlantic technology at Christopher Columbus will be disseminated to Union City's other schools thanks to a $1.5 million grant from the National Science Foundation.
It is critical for the school district to become technologically self-sufficient, says Margaret Honey, the associate director at the New York-based Center for Children and Technology, which helped Union City secure the grant.
"When a large corporation says it's going to hook 10,000 schools up to the Internet, that's great," she says. "But what does it mean? The superhighway is not about content--it's about promoting ownership, where educators are defining the resources that are relevant to their classrooms."
Technological independence may not be too far off for Union City. Carrigg is working with Lotus Notes to design an on-line curriculum repository that will allow teachers and administrators to exchange teaching ideas, discuss curricular changes, and communicate about other professional issues.
Nationwide, Tully predicts that Bell Atlantic's networking technology should be available well within the decade. The potential school market is estimated to be worth billions of dollars.
When and if these products actually become available depends to some degree on the complex legislation now wending its way through Congress. Conferees are weighing House and Senate versions of deregulation, and one outstanding question is whether schools will be guaranteed affordable, discounted access to telecommunications services.
Robert Fazio, the principal at Christopher Columbus, is keeping his fingers crossed that this will become a reality. "I hope this school will be replicated in every district and state in the country," he says. "I want every school to experience what we have. This is education."
The resources mentioned in this story can be reached at the
following Internet address:
Bell Atlantic New Jersey:http://www.cnm.bell-atl.com/pfischer/explore.html