IT Infrastructure

Technology Spreads Slowly But Surely in Miss.

By Alan Richard — April 02, 2003 7 min read
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South Delta Elementary School is the kind of place Gov. Ronnie Musgrove of Mississippi had in mind when he announced that his state was the nation’s first to provide an Internet-accessible computer in every public school classroom.

A hundred miles from Jackson, the state capital, students here in Rolling Fork’s only elementary school often have three or four computers in each classroom, and they use them almost every day.

But at this school, and many others throughout Mississippi and the rural South, the technology problems are far from resolved. Here at South Delta Elementary, the abundance of computers is tempered by their old age and heavy use.

The school’s library had 10 computers, but only three of them were working during a recent visit. Several others had sticky notes on them, explaining the reasons for their disrepair. Two more had been turned into shelves for an exhibit on healthy eating.

As for the computers that worked, they wouldn’t run Accelerated Reader, a computer-based program. Worse, no one knew how to get the popular programs to run. The school shares one part-time technician with neighboring schools and school districts.

“We have wonderful material, but we can’t access it,” librarian Rose Marie Caulder said. “My dream is to have 12 computers up and running. I’d love for my children to just come to the computer and do basic research.”

That is where Gov. Musgrove has stepped in to lead a statewide public-private partnership through which teachers and students in scores of Mississippi high schools have been trained to build computers for use in public schools.

Hundreds of students across the state also are learning skills they can use in real jobs, while schools are reaping the new supply of computer hardware.

As promising as the program is, though, it has not always delivered on its potential.

Rolling Fork’s South Delta High School—just across the creek from the elementary school—was one of those computer-building centers.

But the teacher in charge of the program left during the school year, and the South Delta schools received only a few pieces of hardware. The governor’s program never really made it to Rolling Fork.

“There is an abundance of work to be done, as you can see,” said Lucille Lovette, the first- year principal at South Delta Elementary.

How Far to Go?

Federal data gathered by Education Week show that Mississippi trails national averages in many technology-related categories.

The state had fewer Internet-accessible computers in classrooms in 2002 than many other states, while it provided an Internet-accessible computer for every 11 students, compared with the national average of nine. However, the state did show the nation’s highest percentage of schools with full-time technology coordinators.

The Rural School and Community Trust, meanwhile, says that Mississippi isn’t where it needs to be in many categories of the trust’s annual “Why Rural Matters” report, released in February. The Washington-based nonprofit group reported that 60 percent of rural teachers in Mississippi use computers during classes—the third-worst rate in the nation.

The group ranked Mississippi as the state in the most dire need of policies to help rural schools.

In this context, it is no wonder that Mr. Musgrove, a Democrat, declared with great fanfare in January that Mississippi was the first state to provide Internet access in every classroom. (“Mississippi Touts a First In Internet Access,” Jan. 15, 2003.)

He wanted to fill the people of this state with pride—and presumably help his chances for re-election this fall—when he made the computer announcement.

Gov. Musgrove and other partners in the computers-in-classrooms program may be right to claim that Mississippi is gaining in use of technology in schools. Interviews with principals, teachers, and students indicate that more computers are being delivered to schools that need them, and that computer training and instruction are improving.

The governor toured dozens of Mississippi schools in February. “I watched students working on science projects, history projects, pulling up the most up-to-date recent information on the Internet,” Mr. Musgrove said in an interview. “Everyone that I observed has computers. ... Everyone has certified to the state department of education [that they do].”

In addition, he points out that state lawmakers recently heeded his call for a major increase in K-12 education spending. In all, $142 million in new education funding was approved so quickly by the legislature that Mississippi was the first state to pass a fiscal 2004 education budget this year.

“I do like the governor,” said Ms. Lovette of South Delta Elementary. “It would be hard not to like him if you’re in education,” But, referring to her school’s problems, she added, “Our governor and our education forces need to be more in touch with the local level.”

Muddy Water

South Delta is the only school district in Mississippi so small that it takes students from two whole counties to fill the schools. Only about 9,000 people live in Sharkey and Issaquina counties, and the 1,700-student school system is the area’s biggest employer.

The elementary school, which doesn’t have a sign that denotes its current name, is a big school for these parts. South Delta Elementary has about 730 pupils in grades K-5. South Delta High School has some 420 students, suggesting that about half the district’s students transfer or drop out before graduation.

Rolling Fork, with a population of 2,400, in essence has two school systems. The South Delta public schools serve an almost entirely African-American student population in Rolling Fork and nearby Anguilla. Whites typically go to a private academy.

A road called Race Street literally divides the town. So does a deep, winding creek crossed by an old wooden footbridges.

Schools struggle in this region where people have so much history and culture to build on. One of the world’s most influential musicians, the blues singer and guitarist Muddy Waters, was born near here. Theodore Roosevelt began his famous bear hunt from this vicinity.

The Mississippi River itself, just a few miles away, has carried more stories than the Library of Congress.

But the area also has pressing needs that have nothing to do with computer keyboards and monitors. Educators here want more qualified teachers, capable and knowledgeable school leaders, and the ability to provide a level of education that could help local families dig out of incredible poverty. Nonetheless, computers are an important tool in the educators’ arsenal.

During a reporter’s visit to Ms. Lovette’s elementary school earlier this semester, 34 sleek new computers that the school managed to get had arrived recently for special education classes.

“We’re still behind because technology, it changes so quick,” said Ms. Lovette, who graduated from South Delta Elementary when it was the segregated high school for African-Americans. “The money is just not available to keep up with it.”

To date, South Delta Elementary has received only four new computers through the governor’s computer-building program, and has done better finding hardware on its own.

“It didn’t really materialize,” Barbara Jackson, the lead teacher at South Delta Elementary, said of the computer- building program. “We have equipment, and I feel good about that. But it would be good to have someone in the district at all times [to fix and install computers].”

Second grade teacher Martha Abney had seven computers in her classroom, but had to interrupt her instruction to fix passwords and conduct other maintenance. “It takes time away,” said Ms. Abney, adding that her printer doesn’t work.

When told about the situation in Rolling Fork, Gov. Musgrove argued during the recent interview at his office in Jackson that state education policies are stirring hope in many Mississippi schools.

Asked about the places where educators say they still don’t have the computers they need, the governor responded: “We still have a good number of computers. ... Any school district that will contact us and tell us they need computers, we will provide them.”

And, while the program is just one part of his overall education agenda, he predicted that Mississippi would rise to the standards set out under the federal “No Child Left Behind” Act of 2001—despite the state’s shortage of qualified teachers and abundance of schools with low test scores.

“Statistically, we have further to go, but there’s no reason we won’t get there,” Mr. Musgrove said. “My commitment is, we’ll get there faster than a lot of other places, and it’s because of the focus and commitment.”

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

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