Thousands Turn Out to Wire Calif. Schools for the Internet

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Barry Kim had just climbed down from a ladder after spending a half-hour stapling computer cables along a 70-year-old wall, when he learned he'd have to do the job over again.

Susan Southwick, who was overseeing the work of Mr. Kim and other volunteers at Leonard R. Flynn Elementary School here, insisted that the work be redone. The wires, she explained, should have been placed under an exposed pipe, not over it.

Ms. Southwick, an engineer with Sun Microsystems Inc., was a stickler for details. She and the handful of enthusiastic student and community volunteers were helping link Flynn Elementary's students with the rest of the world through telecommunications networks.

They, and thousands of other volunteers, spread out among California's schools March 9 for NetDay96, a grassroots effort to prepare the state's schools for access to the Internet.

The number of participants was difficult to verify because the one-day event was organized entirely through the medium of the Internet's World Wide Web. But John Gage, one of the event's organizers, estimated that at least 20,000 volunteers laid more than 6 million feet of cable in roughly 5,000 California schools.

The event received national publicity and was hailed as a success by its organizers and by President Clinton and Vice President Al Gore, who pitched in to help wire a high school.

But Mr. Gage and others acknowledged that the fruits of the volunteer labor weren't distributed evenly.

At Flynn Elementary, which draws a quarter of its students from San Francisco's largest public-housing project in the city's Mission district, there were no parent volunteers. There also were few modern computers.

Across the Golden Gate bridge in affluent Marin County, home of many of the nation's largest software and computer-game companies, the situation was different.

At James B. Davidson Middle School in San Rafael, where two of his children go to school,veterinarian Terry Cosgrove banged covers into place over wiring strips in a large and airy building.

The NetDay workers at Davidson followed a long-range technology plan for the school, funded in large part by local businesses, that Mr. Cosgrove helped develop. The volunteers put the finishing touches on the conversion of a 1950s-era building on the campus into a computerized math and science lab. New computers were locked in a nearby building, still in their boxes.

"This is a $400,000 project. We're doing it for $150,000," Mr. Cosgrove said proudly. "We're well beyond the basic NetDay idea."

Billed in part as a great technological leveler, NetDay not only brought out the best in many volunteers, but also brought to the fore some important questions of equity in the information age.

Presidential Support

Though the event drew extensive media coverage, for the most part it was not the Susan Southwicks and John Cosgroves who made the headlines.

That attention inevitably went to the two highest-profile volunteers, Mr. Clinton and Mr. Gore, who unrolled a spool of cable at Ygnacio Valley High School in Concord, an hour's drive east of San Francisco.

Standing before 200 volunteers and addressing a crowd of more than 5,000 people, Mr. Clinton praised NetDay as a national model of volunteerism.

"What you're doing today is America at its very best," he told the cheering crowd. "NetDay is a modern version of an old-fashioned barn-raising."

Mr. Clinton has long stressed the need to bring new technology to schools. But the issue has extra appeal in this election year, and it was obvious that the president hadn't overlooked the political value of NetDay in a state that is a coveted electoral prize.

Outside the crowded courtyard, eager volunteers distributed campaign materials and did a brisk business in Clinton-Gore T-shirts.

Uneven Distribution

Described by many as a throwback to the activism of the 1960s, NetDay was conceived by Mr. Gage, the chief scientist for Mountain View, Calif.-based Sun Microsystems, and Michael Kaufman, the director of information technology at KQED, San Francisco's public-broadcasting affiliate.

Mr. Gage brought experience he gained years ago organizing national protests against the Vietnam War to use in planning for NetDay.

Both he and Mr. Kaufman shared the stage at Ygnacio High with the president.

"The country will long be in their debt," Mr. Clinton said. "They have come up with something remarkable."

Yet Mr. Gage conceded that though many more than 20,000 volunteers may have joined in the event statewide, some schools had far more help than others.

Although 5,000 schools were expecting volunteers, an additional 8,000 in the state had "nothing going on," he said. He urged volunteers to continue their work throughout the school year.

Mr. Clinton, meanwhile, announced that his administration was considering ways to use the NetDay model nationwide.

Liability Concerns

That prospect, however, was not greeted warmly everywhere.

Although unwilling to criticize the event publicly, some state-level technology coordinators outside California said they were afraid that NetDay might set an unfortunate precedent. The event, they said, raised important concerns about both liability and equity.

The California School Boards Association also sent a letter to its members warning them of legal dangers.

School districts were at risk of liability, the group cautioned, both for any injuries to volunteers and for any harm or damage that might be caused by the work they performed.

And some school districts were reluctant to take part in NetDay because they already have their own long-range technology plans.

"We never turn down a volunteer, because that's never a good thing to do," said David Gordon, the superintendent of the 31,000-student Elk Grove Unified district in Sacramento, which is in the midst of a sophisticated program to wire schools and to provide teachers with computers. "But this is a situation where we would have to redo all of this work to take on volunteers."

Though hailed as the first such event to be organized solely through the Internet, that distinction created some problems. Mr. Gage noted that many schools without access to the global computer network were largely unaware of NetDay until days before it happened.

"I don't know that this is the model that they want to replicate," said Mr. Kim, the Flynn Elementary volunteer, who is also a software developer for Netscape Communications Corp., based in Mountain View.

He said it was hard for volunteers to find out exactly what they were supposed to do, and pointed out that there was no central office to call for information.

But, he said during his short break from stapling wires, "despite the disorganization, it's coming together."

Other volunteers said they found the informal, ad hoc nature of NetDay troubling.

Susan Mahony, who teaches at Phillip and Sala Burton Academic High School in San Francisco, said she volunteered to help wire Flynn Elementary because, as a former teacher there, she worried that parents would not show up. She asked Ms. Southwick to help and brought eight student volunteers from her after-school network-telecommunications class.

Though she was glad to help out, she added that she was angry that schools must resort to tactics such as NetDay at all to provide even rudimentary telecommunications links.

"If they wanted to wire the central offices," she said, "they wouldn't call up the taxpayers and say, 'We would you like to volunteer your time."'

Vol. 15, Issue 26, Pages 8-9

Published in Print: March 20, 1996, as Thousands Turn Out to Wire Calif. Schools for the Internet
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