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Who's Minding The Computers?

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When the only computer-systems employee in the Jessamine County school district left his job last fall, administrators didn't exactly rush to find a replacement. They figured that if the network crashed, one of their high school students would get it up and running again. After all, the students were already fixing most of the computer problems in the Kentucky district's nine schools anyway.

Although turning kids loose on a school's computer system might seem like setting a fox loose in a chicken coop, Jessamine County is just one of the many districts around the country where students are the resident computer gurus and chief trouble-shooters. As schools acquire new technology, many can't afford enough computer technicians to maintain it, explains Margaret Honey, deputy director of the Center for Children and Technology, an arm of the New York City-based Education Development Center. And kids often know as much as adults about technology.

In the 6,300-student Jessamine County school system, technology coordinator Carol Utay supervises 12 students who help manage district computers as part of a structured program supported and sanctioned by the state. The students are generally sent out on computer calls during a technology class one period a day, although they're sometimes summoned from their regular classes to address a particularly pressing problem. When working for the district outside of school hours, they get paid minimum wage.

Students and administrators like the arrangement. "They get their computers fixed, and I get a better education," says Seth Fleckinstein, one of two 8th graders who manage the computers at West Jessamine Middle School.

The 9,000-student Olympia, Washington, school district was one of the first to turn to students for computer-network management. Four years ago, two Olympia educators and a core group of students—none of whom knew much about computers—took on the task of setting up five file servers in five different schools and keeping a districtwide computer network running. The students divided the tasks of managing the network and maintained it on their own for about two and a half years.

"We were completely devoted to the network," says Abby Polzin, one of the student managers and now a computer-science major at Linfield College in McMinnville, Oregon. "It was our thing, and we wanted it to be the best possible. It was difficult at the time, but everything I did then has been good background for what I'm doing now."

These days, the Olympia district relies on adult computer technicians—with some assistance from students. The computer network "got so big that we needed someone who was there all the time and didn't have to run to class," says assistant superintendent Patrick Gill. "To some degree, we probably were taking advantage of the kids."

Ryan Lucas, an 11th grader who is also the computer network manager for Tigard High School in Oregon's Tigard/Tualatin school district, doesn't see his job that way. "It's an even trade," says Lucas, who got his job through TigerNet, a computer refurbishing program sponsored by the 11,000-student district. "Schools are getting a free thing out of it, and I'm getting experience."

Still, using students to maintain computer systems "is not all roses," says Jerry Westfall, a school-to-work counselor who created TigerNet in 1994. For one thing, "it's hard for kids to manage kids," he says. "They lack the maturity." To help kids learn management skills, Westfall invites executives from area companies to come and talk about supervising other people.

The counselor also worries that student-work programs run the risk of being turned into what he calls "a kid sweatshop." To prevent that, he limits the refurbishing of computers to one day a week and encourages students to get involved in a variety of technology learning projects.

Tigard/Tualatin superintendent Russell Joki downplays his system's use of students to maintain computers. With the exception of Tigard High School, where he says "students are carrying the day," the district relies on four adult technicians. With 15 schools, the district needs the consistency of having adult technical support, Joki says. "Students are there to learn; they're not there as employees," he explains. "They have saved us money, but I don't see using them purposefully for that reason."

One issue that almost always arises when schools turn computer maintenance over to students is the access they have to district records. "The more you give someone access to the system, the more you expose yourself," says Margaret Honey of the Center for Children and Technology. "There are issues about students managing aspects of the network because of security."

Students, she says, shouldn't work on a network that gives them access to confidential student records, but she has no problem with them running e-mail networks or those that link students to the World Wide Web.

In the Olympia school district, students have never worked with administrators' files, but they did, in the early days, manage a file server that contained teachers' files, including grades. Because teachers felt uncomfortable with that, the district eventually set up a separate file server for teachers' data that was not managed by students.

According to Ron Morsett, one of the teachers who helped set up the computer network in Olympia, the student managers generally proved themselves trustworthy. They never took advantage of their positions by playing pranks, he says, although one student manager did steal a computer memory chip.

In Jessamine County, technology coordinator Carol Utay trusts some students to manage administrative files, though they are not given the individual passwords to look inside them. "The students have the passwords to the entire network," she says. "The program that runs the grades has an additional password." Utay says she occasionally gives a student manager access to the program with the grades but only for a "limited amount of time."

Although the work is demanding, most students seem to relish the experience. "It's a big opportunity," says Jonathan "J.D." Archer, a senior and computer-network manager at East Jessamine High School. "When you're walking around school and a teacher says, 'J.D., can you come help us?,' it makes you feel good that teachers are relying on you to help them fix computers. You're becoming a teacher, and they're becoming students."

Does he ever get bored of the job? "You can never learn all there is to know about computers," he says. "It's almost like counting to infinity. You're never going to learn every piece of hardware or software. You'll never know everything."

—Mary Ann Zehr

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