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Parents Mobilize To Get Calif. Schools Wired

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John Miranda thinks he is ready to be "wired." And this Saturday, if all goes as planned, he'll find out whether he's right or wrong.

Early on the morning of March 9, parents, community volunteers, and even some students are scheduled to show up at Mira Mesa High School in San Diego County, Calif., to begin stringing cables that will provide at least five classrooms, the school library, and a computer lab with the connections needed to access the global Internet computer network.

Similar scenes will be unfolding in schools across the Golden State this weekend. It's all part of "NetDay96," a statewide grassroots effort to help schools begin to meet President Clinton's goal of making every classroom an on-ramp to the so-called information highway by the turn of the century.

Mr. Miranda, a vice principal at Mira Mesa High, said that NetDay promises to provide for the school's 2,100 students what the county coffers have not.

"There are two high schools in our community. Scripps Ranch High School, our newest high school, is completely equipped with fiber-optic cable and all of the latest in technology," Mr. Miranda said. "Our school has not been retrofitted since it was built 20 years ago."

Collaborative Campaign

Organized by John Gage, the chief scientist at Sun Microsystems Inc. of Mountain View, Calif., and Michael Kaufman, the director of information technology at public-television station KQED in San Francisco, NetDay is something of a throwback to the political activism of the 1960s.

Mr. Gage, who was one of the organizers of the massive "moratoriums" staged to protest the Vietnam War, has brought similar skills to bear to make NetDay a reality. That is, with one significant difference: He now has the support of multinational corporations and the president of the United States.

President Clinton and Vice President Al Gore are expected to appear in California to showcase NetDay activities.

And late last month, speaking at Jackie Robinson Academy in Long Beach, Calif., Mr. Clinton called NetDay "the biggest next step in our campaign" to ensure wholesale classroom access to telecommunications.

State and local politicians and officials, including state schools Superintendent Delaine Eastin, have also endorsed the project.

More than 600 California companies have agreed to pay for the installation kits, which contain the jacks and wiring needed to connect each school's classrooms to the Internet.

Pacific Bell, for example, a division of Pacific Telesis and one of the state's largest telephone companies, has announced that it will underwrite the cost of 1,000 of the $500 kits to wire some 5,000 classrooms.

And support for the project continues to grow.

Mci Communications Corp., the Washington, D.C.-based telecommunications company, announced last week that it would provide free Internet access and technical support to all K-12 schools in California beginning March 9.

Through an alliance with the Telis Foundation, a Los Angeles-based philanthropy that helps elementary and secondary school students and teachers navigate the Internet's World Wide Web, mci will provide each school with 60 hours of free Internet access every month for the next year.

Exacerbating Inequities?

Still, a handful of harsh realities temper all the NetDay enthusiasm. Some argue that schools will have a hard time finding volunteers with the know-how to provide such technical support.

Mira Mesa High, which has the good fortune to be located near the Miramar Naval Air Station and many high-tech companies, has attracted large numbers of skilled volunteers.

Nonetheless, Mr. Miranda said, the school will closely supervise the volunteers. And employees from the district's computer-support division will approve the final work in hopes of preventing faulty wiring or unnecessary damage to classrooms.

Statewide, meanwhile, skeptics have raised concerns that NetDay may actually exacerbate the gap between schools with Internet access and those without.

An interactive map on the NetDay home page tracks the number of volunteers at each of the state's 13,000 public and private schools. Red dots indicate schools with no volunteers, while yellow dots mark those with four or more.

"If we can get the whole damn state colored yellow, then that will be really something," Mr. Gage told local reporters last month, adding that NetDay has received support in some unlikely places.

"You see yellows scattered in the boonies," he added. "It shows the ubiquity of the Internet ... because there has been no press coverage in those areas. The only way people could have found out about this is through the Internet."

Gage estimated it that would take 20,000 volunteers to meet NetDay's initial goal of wiring 20 percent of the state's schools this weekend. As of late last week, nearly 12,000 volunteers had signed up.

But red dots still appeared to predominate the color-coded map, particularly in the rural areas outside of the Silicon Valley area near San Jose and major cities such as Los Angeles and San Diego.

Moreover, wiring alone won't bring the Internet into the state's classrooms. As Mr. Miranda noted, NetDay is just a first step toward providing schools with Internet access.

"The next step is tying into grants or other funding sources to buy equipment," he said. "All we're doing is the wiring at this time. We do not have the computers to use the network."

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