On-Line at Home: Indiana 4th Graders in Free-Computers Project

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Some of the 4th graders at Indianapolis's Washington Irving Public School 14 come from homes too poor to have telephones.

But, next month, thanks to the efforts of an unusual coalition of business, philanthropic, and educational leaders, each of the pupils will take home a personal computer.

"We're in probably one the poorest sections of the city," said David O. Harakas, the school's principal. Students like his, he said, "have never had this opportunity before."

The inner-city school is one of five in Indiana where home computers will be made available, free of charge, to all 4th graders beginning next month. They are part of an ambitious pilot project that will test the ability of telecommunications technology to improve educational performance for students in a roughly equal mixture of urban, suburban, and rural schools.

The initiative, called the "Buddy System Project: Computers in the Home for Adventures in Learning," will equip 300 students with either Apple or i.b.m. microcomputers, plus related hardware and software, and provide advanced communications links between the students, their schools, and national computer networks.

Education officials said they hope the project will not only spur students to spend more time on their school work, but also increase parents' involvement in the process of learning.

Backers of the initiative said a successful pilot test might pave the way for an extension of the program to every school in the state within the next five years.

"It's going to be the new wave of education," said John D. Hague, president of the Indiana Corporation for Science and Technology, a state-chartered, nonprofit corporation that has championed the initiative. "We'd just like to be on the leading edge of it."

'Nothing on This Scale'

Although similar projects, such as Apple Computer's Classrooms of Tomorrow, have attempted to expand students' access to home and school computers, supporters say the Indiana initiative dwarfs previous efforts, which typically have involved only individual schools.

"When we started doing our feasibility study, we found that there was really nothing similar in the country on this scale," said Harold O. Casali, project manager for Technology Management Inc., a telecommunications consulting firm that is coordinating the test project.

Since its conception almost 18 months ago, the project has grown from a modest proposal to equip students in two classrooms to an undertaking that has garnered donations of time, equipment, and expertise worth $5 million, officials said.

In the process, it has won the support of H. Dean Evans, Indiana's superintendent of public instruction, and funding from such private-sector benefactors as the Lilly Endowment Inc.; gte North Inc.; Indiana Bell Telephone; Apple Computer Inc.; and the International Business Machines Corporation.

"It escalated, it just took off," said William C. Bonifield, vice president of the Lilly Endowment, which originally planned to contribute $85,000 to the project but recently approved a $330,000 grant.

Kent L. Wall, president of Technology Management Inc., and a guiding force behind the project, said business leaders hope the return on their investment will be a more skilled and competitive workforce.

The success of the experiment, he and others said, could place Indiana in a position to become a leader in developing the home-computer-services industry, creating a "Silicon Valley" atmosphere that could spark economic development.

But backers also concede that the project might fail to generate any sustained interest in new technologies--and that it might not produce measurable improvements in educational performance.

They also are aware, they say, of the possibility that donated equipment may be lost, damaged, or stolen.

"There is a lot of risk," said Mr. Bonifield. "But the potential of this is so great. It's the kind of thing foundations ought to be doing."

4th Grade 'Ideal Time'

Educators involved in the project said that the 4th grade, for a number of reasons, is an ideal time to introduce the computers. Boys and girls at that grade level are still equally receptive to technical education, they said, and have already gained some familiarity with the concept of homework.

In addition, the educators said, bonds between parents and children are still strong at that age, and parents generally are able to cope with 4th-grade homework assignments.

Mr. Haraka said he firmly believes that students at Public School 14 will benefit from the increased parental awareness the program promises.

"We look at this project as one of the first giant stepping stones,'' he said, in getting parents to take a more active interest in the school.

'Ripple Effect'

At the Dayton Elementary School in rural Tippecanoe County, Principal Donald N. Timmons said he expected the project to have a "ripple effect" on his pupils' school-age siblings that will stretch its impact far beyond the 4th-grade class.

When the computers go home in October, Mr. Haraka said, students will have had enough experience with them to teach other family members how to operate them.

He added that the computer might prove to be an educational boon to parents. "The children at the beginning will be teaching their parents. But we're hoping that a lot of the parents that never completed their high-school education will complete their ged"

The Indianapolis principal suggested that the project may also help close the educational gap between students at his school and those in the more affluent suburbs, where "so many of those students have had computers in their homes for years already."

State education officials said that home computers could be one way to help capitalize on their "Primeel10lTime" initiative, a program that seeks to intensify the educational experience in grades 1-3 through such means as limited class sizes.

Long-Range Plans

The future of the project will depend on many factors, officials said, only one of which will be its demonstrable impact on school achievement.

One measure used to gauge that impact will be students' performance on the California Achievement Test, which they took as 3rd graders and will retake at the end of this school year.

But, Mr. Bonifield said, "we don't believe that we want to live and die on test scores."

Students and parents will be asked to fill out questionnaires assessing the project's value. And other measures, such as attendance figures and student-attrition rates--particularly those at schools like Public School 14--may also be used.

Mr. Wall conceded, however, that, at least initially, evidence of success is likely to be "anecdotal." But the hope, he said, is to continue the experiment.

"What I'd like to do next year, if we're on the right track, is to take the concept to 20 or 25 schools and move up to grade 5," he said. "Beyond that, it's hard to envision because we know so little."

Vol. 09, Issue 04

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