Partnering With the Public

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Much has been made of technology’s ability to open schools up to the world via the Internet and satellites. But technology is playing an equally powerful role in opening schools up to their local communities.

In many districts, parents can write teachers a note through electronic mail or call them directly on a classroom phone. Teachers can post students’ work on Web pages. Schools can provide students with take-home laptops.

One result of such developments, some experts say, is that the public’s involvement in schools is growing.

“Schools have been isolated for a long time, and they can’t be anymore,” says Melanie Goldman, the manager of the National School Network, a research project initially funded by the National Science Foundation. “We’re seeing a resurgence in interest from the community. Technology has unfrozen the structure that has been in place for a long time.”

The changing relationship between schools and the community is even making some educators rethink what they mean by “school.”

The Foshay Learning Center, for example, a K-12 public school in Los Angeles, has set up eight satellite learning centers in low-income apartment complexes across the city. Without leaving their buildings, students can get help with homework, learn about technology, and participate in enrichment activities.

“School is anywhere the equipment is,” says Cynthia Amos, the program administrator for Foshay’s satellite project. “We’re trying to show the kids that you can learn anywhere.”

As technology increases people’s access to schools, their interest level increases as well, educators are finding.

Some parents who otherwise might never have volunteered in a school are hooking up classroom computers to the Internet. Many businesses are donating equipment to schools and trying to capitalize on the new market for educational products.

“The more we expand the communication and information services, the more that everyone is getting involved in education,” says Frank B. Withrow, the director of educational programming at the NASA Classroom for the Future project at Wheeling University in West Virginia. “One of the challenges that the schools have is how do they take advantage of that?”

Better communication between teachers and parents is one goal for a state-funded program in Indiana called the Buddy System. In this program, computers and modems are placed in the homes of 7,000 elementary school students, usually 4th and 5th graders, for a one- or two-year period. Schools submit proposals to participate, and are selected in part on their record of family involvement.

One evaluation of the Buddy System conducted by an independent consulting firm showed that it “established and strengthened home-school connections.”

Alan T. Hill, the president of the nonprofit group that runs the Buddy System, says parents have been so enthusiastic about it that “we have to fight [them] off” when they have an opportunity each year to present to the state legislature what they’re doing with computers. “We only have room for 150 people [inside the state capitol’s rotunda],” Hill says. “We have to give schools quotas.”

One attractive feature of the Buddy System is that it allows parents to communicate with teachers using e-mail. But this isn’t necessarily why the program has been so successful. Indeed, two parents in the program who were interviewed recently say they rarely use e-mail.

Hill says there are other “hooks” that get parents involved as well.

When they receive a computer, they often feel like they’ve gotten “something very tangible and useful from their local school system,” Hill says. “As a result, they become more involved in working with the teacher. They have to go to the school to pick up the equipment. There’s a minimum of training required. Many of them have never been in the schools.”

In many Buddy System schools, Hill says, parents run computer training programs for families.

A more basic form of technology—the telephone—has a longer track record in improving communication between school personnel and parents. Teachers at Canton Middle School in Baltimore, for example, have had phones in their classrooms for the past four years.

“If something is going wrong, they pick the phone right up and say, ‘We’re having a crisis,’ ” says Carolyn Fowler, the mother of a Canton 8th grader. “Not only do they call the parent to say, ‘Your child did this.’ They also call to say, ‘Your child had a good day.’ It makes the parent feel really good.”

About twice a week, Fowler calls the school’s homework hot line, on which teachers record a message each day for parents and students to access in the evening. Before her child attended Canton, Fowler says, it was easy for him to say, “There isn’t any homework.”

Canton also uses the voice mail system to send an automatic message to parents at 6:30 a.m. if their child was absent from or arrived tardy at school the day before. “I notice an increase in promptness,” says Nilah Briscoe, the school’s technology manager. “Mother and Dad are saying, ‘Why were you late?’ It’s like an alarm to get them up in the morning and get the child to school on time. It works.”

Web pages, meanwhile, are being used less for direct home-school communication than as a way to keep parents generally informed about school or class activities.

“I see a lot of publishing of the kids’ work, which is going to involve parents. I’ve seen very little parent-teacher communication going on,” says Stephen Collins, the project manager for Web66, a University of Minnesota-based effort to track schools’ use of Web sites.

Kim Cobb, a parent of twins attending South Elementary School in Hingham, Mass., says her children’s school Web site “keeps me on top of what’s going on without my having to be there. It’s great for working parents.”

But she adds, “It’s not a substitute for being in touch with the teachers themselves.”

Barbara Davis, the mother of a 6th grader at South School in Holbrook, Mass., volunteered to be the coordinator for a school Web site that she just helped launch. “We have the lunch menu up there and school calendar, and people liked that because often those things don’t go home,” she says.

Within a year, she expects, the Web site will have a separate page for each class, giving teachers the option of posting information about homework for their classes.

Typically, Davis says, “Your kid comes home from school and you say to your child, ‘What did you do in school today?’ Usually he says, ‘Oh, nothing.’ ”

School Web sites give parents an alternative, she says.

As it becomes increasingly important for students and parents to have a computer at home, concerns are being raised about those families who can’t afford one.

“You can’t get a good job without some computer skills,” says Ralph Bunday, a physics teacher at Montgomery Blair High School in Silver Spring, Md. He is worried that low-income students aren’t getting the access to computers they need to compete in the job market.

Students with a computer in their home have more time to become comfortable with technology, adds Susan Ragan, a computer science teacher and colleague of Bunday’s. “You get to sit there for hours at a time rather than having to jump up after 45 minutes and go to your next class.”

Bart Decrem, the executive director of Plugged In, a program that offers computer access to students in a low-income neighborhood near Silicon Valley in California, agrees.

Unless students have access to computers, technology is merely “something they read about in the newspaper,” Decrem says. “It doesn’t become part of their daily world.”

The most recent national data about the distribution of technology in the homes of school-age children comes from the 1993 U.S. Census. It shows that 32 percent of children from ages 3 to 17 had a computer in their home. Almost 36 percent of white children had one, compared with 13 percent of black children and 12 percent of Hispanic children.

Access to computers at home can vary greatly even among students in a single school.

“We have $5 million houses along the lake and we have 28 percent of students on free or assisted lunch,” says Frank Gnagni, the department chairman of media and technology services for Evanston Township High School in Evanston, Ill. “Some go home to their own computer in their own bedroom. Others go home and have to go to the library to use the computer.”

To help address the equity issue, the school opens its media and computer centers up to students before and after school.

Other schools are making computers available elsewhere in their communities. At Montgomery Blair High, students are receiving academic or community service credit for setting up computer centers—with donated equipment— in low-income apartments where some of the school’s students live. The Champaign Community Schools district in Illinois put a computer lab in a local boys’ and girls’ club, hoping to reach some of the students who don’t have computers at home. The lab is also used by the school during school hours.

Concerns about equity are behind some schools’ efforts to lease or loan computers to students for their home use. But many experts agree that these programs are too expensive for most schools to afford without an outside source of funding.

Even Indiana’s Buddy System program, which the public has supported, had its state funding cut in half—from $6 million to $3 million—for the current biennium.

In South Carolina, residents and businesses in the Beaufort County school district have made it possible for selected middle school students to take home laptop computers by setting up a foundation that raised money to subsidize the cost.

Parents all pay something each month to lease the computers for their children; the amount depends on their income level.

“We would not have these computers except for the fact that we have local support by people in our county,” says Denise Smith, the principal of Robert Smalls Middle School, where 55 6th graders took home laptops last year. “These are business persons who are willing to step out and say, ‘Our children deserve this opportunity,’ and are willing to commit themselves to make this available to all our children.”

She adds that the student laptop program “is catching on almost like wildfire.” Requests to participate at her school have increased five-fold from the previous year.

But already this year, the foundation is having to increase the amount that parents must pay to rent a laptop. The basic rental fee has increased from $35 to $60 a month. Parents of students receiving free lunches pay $15 a month, a $5 increase from last year.

If a school does hand out equipment, it also must make sure that families know what to do with it, says Peter B. Miller, the network director for the Community Technology Centers’ Network, a membership organization for community technology centers.

“Any program that is based on the distribution of hardware and software and doesn’t give sufficient attention to staff training and support as well as training in the home is going to fall flat,” Miller says.

One segment of the public that has welcomed schools’ increased use of technology is the business community.

“There’s a growing interest in businesses connecting with schoolchildren for great reasons and some not-so-great reasons,” says Anne Bryant, the executive director of the Alexandria, Va.-based National School Boards Association. “Children constitute a huge market. What we’ve got to keep as the centerpiece is that we’re trying to create the best education for our children that makes us leap into the 21st century.”

Many businesses, to be sure, are motivated by their desire to be “good corporate citizens.” They have given tremendous support to schools for a wide range of technology needs, including providing computer hardware and software, installing distance-learning laboratories, training teachers, and assisting with technology planning.

Mary K. Jones, a software engineer for the Loveland, Colo., division of the Hewlett-Packard Company, has taken advantage of technology to serve students on a more personal level. Through the company’s telementoring program, Jones advised three students about career options and the importance of school. They communicated by e-mail.

“The technology finally made it possible for me to give back in a way that doesn’t affect my whole life,” Jones says.

Some employers say they’re concerned that if schools don’t graduate computer-literate people, they won’t have a computer-literate workforce from which to hire employees.

Indeed, one recent poll of 303 human resources executives shows that 49 percent of the respondents say computer skills are “very important,” but only 14 percent think students are “very well prepared” in this area. The survey was conducted in May by Roper Starch Worldwide for Amway and Junior Achievement.

“There’s certainly an increased interest in technology partnership,” says Daniel Merenda, the president and CEO of the National Association of Partners in Education Inc. “Businesses are interested in getting involved because they want young people coming out of their schools to be able to work in the workplace. If there’s a well-equipped workforce, it’ll attract more business to the community and there will be more markets.”

Businesses also view school technology as a booming new market.

“I think there’s a huge need there. And whenever there’s a huge need, a lot of companies will want to be there,” says David Fachetti, the senior vice president of sales, marketing, and operations for the Boston-based FamilyEducation Co., which markets Web sites that emphasize parent involvement. “Schools have to be careful.”

Fachetti says his company has strived to earn credibility by gaining endorsements from organizations such as the National PTA and the American Association of School Administrators. “The reality is we wouldn’t be working with those organizations for too long if we went outside of what was acceptable bounds,” he says.

School technology became especially attractive to businesses when the emphasis shifted from “administrative processes” to “learning processes,” says Rick Normington, an area vice president of the education market group for Pacific Bell. “We’re shifting into an environment where we’re trying to bring more information into the classroom. That’s what’s causing the market to explode.”

Pacific Bell has agreed to commit $100 million between 1994 and the year 2000 to a technology program called Education First that provides free ISDN lines to California schools and libraries, an education Web site, four roving technology trainers, technology workshops, and other services.

Normington says some school leaders were suspicious of the program at first.

“We spent so much time publicizing what we were doing, we created some fear on the part of educators that our motives weren’t real,” he says. “We stopped publicizing for a while and instead made sure that the schools understood we would be around for the long term.

“If a business is only interested in a marketplace or publicity, the school’s going to recognize that,” Normington adds. “They’re going to be reluctant to accept help from someone who’s going to disappear once the reporters are gone.”

NetDay is perhaps the best-known example of how technology can boost the public’s involvement in schools.

The project was started in 1996 by Michael Kaufman, a senior director of digital learning for PBS, and John Gage, a chief scientist for Sun Microsystems, as a one-day event to wire schools in California for access to the Internet. At the request of the White House and the U.S. Department of Education, they expanded the project nationwide.

As of this fall, more than 250,000 volunteers had helped wire 50,000 classrooms across the United States.

Some observers say those figures don’t tell the whole story, noting that if classrooms don’t have computers, or teachers don’t have training, wiring doesn’t make much of a difference.

But no one can deny that the effort has touched a chord.

“I’m seeing people from all walks of life wanting to wire the classrooms in the school in their neighborhood. … It almost becomes a competitive thing,” says Ann Murphy, a NetDay national organizer. “People kept writing to us and saying, ‘I’ll organize Texas. I’ll organize Oklahoma.’ So you have a unique NetDay in every state.”

Participants in Massachusetts have included “a lot of young people in their 20s and 30s who have been exposed to technology in the workplace,” says Steve Miller, the head of NetDay in Massachusetts and the executive director of Mass Networks Education Partnership. “They like it, know it’s important, and want to share it.”

NetDay is a way of helping students in disadvantaged areas that might not otherwise be able to afford technology, says Suzanna Gomez, the assistant director of civil and human rights for the AFL-CIO. She has been coordinating union participation in NetDay in federally designated empowerment zones.

“We consider this civil rights,” Gomez says, noting that 67 percent of the new entries to the workforce between 1994 and 2000 are expected to be women and minorities and that 60 percent of the jobs by the year 2000 will require technical skills.

Helping to wire schools “is not only the moral thing to do, but the right thing to do,” Gomez says.

The program has intangible benefits as well, Murphy says.

“NetDay is bringing people back into the classroom to see what kind of condition schools are in,” she says. “We found that once people get connected with the school, they stick around and don’t leave.”

Vol. 17, Issue 11, Page 36,37,38

Published in Print: November 10, 1997, as Partnering With the Public
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