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NetDay, Calif. Effort To Wire Schools, Goes Coast to Coast

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NetDay96, the highly publicized volunteer effort in March to wire California schools for computer networks, will expand nationwide, with as many as 40 states expected to stage one-day events in October.

The original NetDay96 mobilized an estimated 20,000 volunteers to install some 6 million feet of wire in 2,600 California schools. President Clinton and Vice President Al Gore both took part, unrolling spools of cable at a high school near San Francisco. (See "Thousands Turn Out To Wire Calif. Schools for the Internet," March 20, 1996.)

Since then, organizers of the San Francisco-based movement have enlisted private organizations, individuals, school districts, and state departments of education across the country. Each state will select a Saturday in October for volunteers to fan out to schools, installing plastic-coated strands of copper or glass wire to link classroom computers to the Internet and its World Wide Web.

So far, however, levels of projected participation vary widely, from states with broad governmental and corporate support to others where little more than a pilot effort at a few schools is planned.

At a national organizing conference in Washington in June, Mr. Gore, U.S. Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley, and other federal officials endorsed NetDay as an example of the corporate and grassroots volunteerism that can propel the nation's schools into the technological age.

"NetDay is an important effort," Mr. Riley told the conference, "because it puts in place one of the essential elements needed to make technology a tool to improve teaching and learning--connections in every classroom that give all of our students access."

Led by San Francisco-based Sun Microsystems Inc. and Cisco Systems Inc. of San Jose, a number of major telecommunications, networking, and software companies have announced that they will participate.

John Gage, a Sun Microsystems executive and NetDay organizer whose estimates of the original NetDay participation ran higher than those of most observers, enthusiastically predicted that the turnout nationwide will be massive. "My guess is, if we got 100,000 people out in California on one day, we ought to get 1 million [volunteers] nationwide in October."

NetDay is not intended to be paid for by tax dollars or school funds. Organizers have urged corporations to buy kits containing the necessary materials and donate them to schools, as well as to volunteer their employees who have technical expertise to spearhead installation efforts.

Pulling Wires

The organizers are urging each school taking part in October to set a target of wiring 20 percent of the building: roughly five adjacent classrooms and a library. That, they estimate, should require at least five volunteers and 2,000 feet of wire.

Wiring kits assembled by technology vendors are listed for sale on the NetDay96 site on the World Wide Web.

Kit prices average about $380, although organizers say prices might drop during the summer. The kits all include heavy-duty "category five" telephone wire that can provide high-volume, high-speed Internet access. In addition, installation kits are listed for about $74.

Missing from the list was another wiring option that is the preferred choice of some schools: fiber-optic cable. Fiber has much greater data-carrying capacity than the wire, but is more expensive and much harder to install.

Mr. Gage, the chief scientist at Sun Microsystems and one of the two founders of NetDay96, said that at least one vendor may soon offer a fiber-optic kit that would simplify installation by volunteers.

The NetDay96 Web site is the main information clearinghouse on the effort, with links leading to related sites--including those of schools that took part in the California event and of schools that are organizing for October.

Varying Participation

The Web site also includes a U.S. map, color-coded to show each state's level of participation. Last week, 31 states were listed in green as "organized." Those in yellow--nine as of last week--have NetDay "contacts," and the 10 states in red "need help."

However, at least two "green" states--Mississippi and Texas--appeared to be less organized than the map suggested.

In Mississippi, for example, "we have registered with the NetDay people," said Helen Soule, the technology director for the Mississippi education department. But officials there are waiting to meet with school technology coordinators to determine their level of participation.

At best, Ms. Soule said, the state would take part "at pilot scale" in October, and "we're looking at March [1997] for more full-blown activity."

Anita Givens, the acting director of instructional technology in the Texas Education Agency, said the agency "right now has no concrete plans" to participate in NetDay but is exploring logistical and legal issues. But, she added, some individual school districts in Texas might be taking part.

Other green states have jumped enthusiastically on the NetDay bandwagon. Massachusetts and North Carolina, for example, are home to large numbers of technology companies that could become long-term partners to local schools. Both states have extensive Web sites devoted to NetDay.

Linda Roberts, the technology adviser to the U.S. Department of Education, noted that in many schools the October event might simply be a planning day. "Every NetDay in every state and [in] every community is going to look a little different."

NetDay organizers and outside observers agree that the success of NetDay at any school will depend primarily on the efforts of its own leaders and community members. Another point of consensus is that the schools that would gain the most from NetDay are those that can blend the initiative with their own established plans for adopting and using technology.

Additional information on NetDay96 is available on the World Wide Web at at http://www.netday96.com/.

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