R.I. Teachers To Get Free Laptop Computers

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Computer-savvy teachers have realized technology's power in creating more interactive curricula, communicating with parents, and networking with other educators.

Now, a Rhode Island nonprofit has added yet another incentive for public school teachers to upgrade their skills: a free laptop computer.

The unusual gift is part of a $5 million education initiative launched last week by the Providence-based Rhode Island Foundation. The largest gift in the foundation's history, it also ranks as one of the biggest ever from a U.S. community foundation, those philanthropies which, unlike private family or corporate foundations, pool funds from a group of local donors to benefit area programs.

The money will be used to give new computers directly to about 3,000 Rhode Island teachers over the next three years--about one-third of the state's teaching force.

"We want to give them 24-hour access to computers," said Ronald V. Gallo, the foundation's president. "When they can use it 24 hours a day, that's where we'll really see curriculum development and the networking of ideas so a teacher in Pawtucket doing something interesting in American history can be in touch with another teacher doing something similar in Westerly."

Unlimited Access

The gift's announcement comes as a number of school districts are proposing or experimenting with giving students a laptop computer to use at home. ("District's Laptop 'Plan' Is Idea Whose Time Has Not Come," May 22, 1996.)

The Kent Central School, a small public elementary school in Kent, Conn., this semester handed portable computers to all 36 of its 7th graders, at a total cost of $80,000.

But the Rhode Island Foundation's donation adds a new twist by giving teachers their own machines. The Microsoft Corp. also is donating more than $1 million worth of software to the effort.

"When we went to schools it was not unusual for us to hear teachers say, 'Here is this computer, but we don't use it because I don't know how,'" Mr. Gallo said.

Teachers will go through a summer training program to learn how to incorporate technology into their classrooms before they receive the computers. Without a teaching force well trained in computer use, Mr. Gallo said, students won't receive the full benefit of technology, no matter how many computers are in the classroom.

"This is a very exciting project," said Linda Roberts, who directs the office of educational technology at the U.S. Department of Education. "Every lesson that's been learned about technology shows that if we don't invest in the training and support of teachers, then the investment in computers and connections is underutilized."

'The Key Link'

Rhode Island education officials expect the grant to substantially increase the number of teachers who take part in the state's primary program for training teachers in computers, called Project SMART.

Launched in 1995 with a $750,000 National Science Foundation grant, the project puts teachers through two-week summer workshops in which they design new classroom projects and units of instruction that use computer technology. The teachers then may apply for grants to run their own training programs in their districts.

"We have to train them not only on how software works, but in combining [the software] with their existing curriculum to enhance it," said Diane Morris, a special education teacher in the 4,000-student Bristol-Warren district and a Project SMART trainer. "That's the key link: If it just sits on the corner of the desk or is used just for word processing, they you haven't really given them anything."

In past years, about 100 teachers have attended the project's two-week summer sessions. The new funds will allow about 340 teachers--including at least one from every school in the state--to attend Project SMART next summer, after which all trainees will receive a new laptop.

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