IT Infrastructure

Mississippi Touts a First In Internet Access

By Alan Richard — January 15, 2003 4 min read
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Gov. Ronnie Musgrove boasted in his State of the State Address last week that Mississippi had reached its goal of installing an Internet-ready computer in every classroom in the state.

The state had already spread the word that Mississippi had scored a first in the nation on that measure. Reports on CNN, in The New York Times, in local newspapers, and on Paul Harvey’s national radio show spotlighted an ambitious state program that trains students to build and deliver computers for schools.

But some people in the state said last week that the governor’s claim was exaggerated. They contend that not every classroom has a Web-ready computer.

“The actual computers themselves are not physically right now in all the classrooms,” said Beverly Sanders, the president of the Mississippi Association of Educators, an affiliate of the National Education Association.

Ms. Sanders said she was hopeful, however, that the governor’s efforts and other available grants and programs would help any remaining schools reach that goal. “I do think it’s forthcoming” that all schools will receive the computers they need, she said.

Two school consultants who visit Mississippi schools regularly said they have been in plenty of classrooms where such computers aren’t present yet.

“I’d almost bet my house on that,” said one of the consultants, who asked that his name not be published, referring to the possibility the state had not actually met its goal. Reasons for the failure might involve limited budgets, a lack of proper wiring, or untapped resources that would enable schools to find computers, he said.

Another consultant, who also asked that her name not be published, said she had found some schools’ Internet access to be so lacking, or slow, that it was useless. She added that in one district, as recently as late November, she had “never seen a child on a computer” for any purpose.

Some whole schools in the state still do not have Internet access, she said, “unless the governor has worked magic in the few weeks after that.”

One high school principal, who asked that his name not be used, said his school had no Web-ready computers for use in classrooms. His district was awaiting help from a limited number of trained employees who could install the computers and ensure proper connections, he said.

If Mississippi’s claim is true, the state is the nation’s first to have a Web-ready computer in every classroom, said Jeanne Hayes, the founder and president of Quality Education Data, a Scholastic Inc. company based in Denver that monitors school technology.

John Sewell, the chief spokesman for the Democratic governor, said the first-in-the-nation announcement was based on results of district-by-district surveys conducted by Gov. Musgrove’s office. Technology directors or other school officials signed documents saying they had Web-ready computers in all of their classrooms, Mr. Sewell said, producing copies as proof.

“These folks have returned surveys that very clearly say that all of their schools have computers in every classroom, and that they’re connected,” Mr. Sewell said last week.

A Bold Initiative

What is undisputed is that Mississippi leaders have cleared a bold path with their initiative. Partnering with the Raleigh, N.C.-based nonprofit ExplorNet, the state has provided about 6,000 new computers for public schools in the past 18 months.

The state has combined federal money with corporate donations, plus a $6 million state economic-development grant, to provide supplies and training for students at 40 schools that now build classroom computers.

“It gave them a purpose,” said Lynne Houston, who leads the computer-making classes at Hattiesburg High School. “This can be a job that helps pay their way through college. We’re trying to give them something besides McDonald’s and Wendy’s.”

In Ms. Houston’s classes in Hattiesburg, students have built around 600 computers for their 5,000-student school district. They’ve delivered computers to other schools, too.

Demorise Barnes, a junior at Hattiesburg High, helped Gov. Musgrove himself build a computer during a training session last year in Jackson, the state capital.

“I showed him how to put the power in and connect the wiring,” she said. Now able to seek a summer job at a nearby factory, Ms. Barnes hopes to study business and technology in college.

Hattiesburg senior Joey Herring said that he can build a whole computer in about an hour, and has landed a part- time technology job at the school district headquarters. He wants to enroll in a local community college, then transfer to the University of Southern Mississippi. “It’s definitely an incentive to go on,” he said.

Ms. Houston was alarmed to hear that some schools and districts may not have all the computers and expertise they need.

“If there’s some who didn’t get them,” she said, “we still have them.”

Some districts in the state were happy to report that the governor’s announcement definitely applied to them.

“We do have computers and Internet-ready accessible computers in every classroom, plus labs,” said Charles Shephard Jr., the superintendent of the 2,600-student Quitman schools, near the Alabama border.

In the town of Arcola, Mississippi State University has helped Chambers Middle School obtain five Web-ready computers for every classroom, plus a lab full of laptop computers, and training for teachers and students, said Angela Johnson, the principal of the 166-student campus.

A principal in Ruleville said his school had received a shipment of computers in November. “I guess we were one of the last schools” to receive computers built by students in Mississippi, said James Johnson, the principal of the 350-student Ruleville Central High School.

Coverage of technology is supported in part by the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation.

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