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NetDay96: A Glimpse of Possibilities

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Saturday, March 9, 1996, was NetDay in California. And if you have only a vague notion of what that means, don't feel too bad about it.

Like me, you are probably among those who are still tiptoeing uneasily into that brave new world where the boundaries are only defined by the technical limits of personal computers and their links to the Internet. To hear computer enthusiasts talk, that means it is a world with virtually no boundaries.

NetDay96 was the idea of two such enthusiasts: John Gage, the chief scientist for Sun Microsystems in the Silicon Valley, and Michael Kaufman, the director of information technology at a San Francisco TV station. They organized it as a "high-tech barn-raising." The goal was to have all 13,000 public, private, and parochial schools in California linked to the Internet by community volunteers. (See Education Week, March 20, 1996.)

A wonderful idea, to be sure. So engaging that it even drew President Clinton to California to help out.

Mr. Clinton and Vice President Al Gore joined volunteers at a Concord, Calif., high school who were wiring the school's computers to accommodate access to the Internet.

This was supposed to illustrate the president's recent pledge to invest $2 billion in federal money to have every classroom in the United States connected to the Internet by the year 2000.

Sound gimmicky? Of course. Which may account for the somewhat jaded news-media reporting buildup to the event.

The political press saw Mr. Clinton making yet one more pitch for support in the state with the most electoral votes. But even news stories that focused on NetDay and its laudatory goal seemed to accentuate the negative. The New York Times quoted educators who are dubious that putting an Internet-linked computer in every classroom will make much of a difference. A recent front-page article in The Los Angeles Times noted that many schools in Los Angeles couldn't find sponsors to pay for the $400 NetDay wiring kits or the volunteers to help install them--a pity, given the magnitude of the challenge facing our schools as they try to prepare kids from poor minority or immigrant families for the high-tech jobs of the 21st century.

This challenge was underscored in an important report issued in February by the Tomas Rivera Center, a Latino public-policy think tank affiliated with the Claremont Colleges and the University of Texas.

Based on U.S. Census data, the report estimated that African-American and Latino youngsters lag four years behind their Anglo counterparts in school. Because of their parents' low incomes and limited educations, young Latinos are less likely than young Anglos to have access to a computer at home; only one Latino household in eight has a home computer, half the number in non-Hispanic white households. So if there is hope for Latino kids becoming computer literate, the report concludes, it must start in the schools. They are "perhaps the central gateway through which Latinos can become full participants in the information society."

The report urges high-tech companies to market their products more aggressively, and where possible more inexpensively, to minorities. And it calls for government policies that would ensure the widest possible public access to new information technologies.

Sound recommendations. But if I have come to one conclusion about the information and technology revolution, it is that government policies and corporate decisions will inevitably lag behind the efforts of the thousands of computer enthusiasts who worked that Saturday trying to get all California schools on the Net.

A perfect example of what can be accomplished by giving a kid just a small glimpse of his own possibilities is the computer whiz closest to me--my 12-year-old nephew Hugo Gutierrez, a 6th grader at Alisal Elementary School, a predominantly Latino school in Salinas, Calif.

Hugo was first exposed to computers at school because, a few years back, the local Latino activists who took control of the Alisal district school board made getting their students on-line a top priority. Hugo did so well on the school machines that his parents decided to make the financial sacrifices it took to buy him a home computer. Now, he not only helps his Uncle Frank through the maze of the Internet, but some of his teachers, too.

If young Hugo can do it, so can the many other Latino kids who are as much a part of California's future as are the high-tech industries that they will one day work for and run. Who knows? A youngster exposed to computers at school may become the engineer who some day designs the personal computer that even the poorest family can afford to have at home.

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