A Window On The World In Vero Beach, Fla.

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As most everyone in Vero Beach, Fla., knows, Irene is the biggest gossip in town--heck, in all of Indian River County. Everything seems to pass through Irene. Unlike most gossips, however, local residents think of her as one of their greatest assets.

Each day, she sits behind a desk in the old converted church that is her home waiting for the telephones to start ringing. And most days they do, roughly a half-hour after school lets out. The ringing is followed by the electronic squawk of modems, as students across the county hook up and begin conversations. From the keyboards of their home computers, some tap out messages about schoolwork, some about boyfriends or girlfriends. Others just lurk and "listen.''

Irene, more formally known as the Indian River Education Network, is an electronic bulletin-board system that since 1992 has allowed students, parents, and teachers in this Atlantic coastal region to use their home computers to retrieve class and bus schedules, read the agendas of school board meetings, and discuss assignments and just about anything else.

What Irene has been, however, pales compared with what local officials hope she will become in the months and years ahead. Thanks to a 1994 federal grant, Irene's capabilities have been growing day by day over the past year. New high-speed modems have been added, a network navigator has been installed, e-mail capabilities have been beefed up, and the system has been linked to the Internet. Soon, school officials hope, families will be able to monitor students' educational progress from home computers.

All of the improvements are aimed at making what local administrators refer to as the "Indian River idea'' a reality. "We really view this as an 'information utility' for the community,'' says Michael Kint, who until recently coordinated the project. "It would be great if everyone used it every day.''

According to Jackson McAfee, former director of information services for the district and now a consultant on the project, the "Indian River idea'' is built on three central precepts: First is the oft-cited proverb that "it takes a whole village to raise a child''; second is an awareness that a great deal of learning occurs outside of the traditional classroom; and finally is the fact that students spend less than 20 percent of their waking life at school.

Using e-mail capabilities, an Internet search engine, and cable television, county school officials are turning Irene into a bridge between the classroom and the greater community, linking schools, homes, local government, and social-service agencies. They also hope that the network will dramatically expand the temporal limits of the school building and day.

As part of a pilot project at the district's Highlands Elementary School, McAfee and a team of teachers are developing individualized student learning plans that will tell parents exactly where their children are in school and what they should be focusing on. The idea is to load these student plans and reports into Irene, where parents can call them up and read them at any time of the day or night. In addition, teachers working on the project are building an inventory of educational resources on the Internet specifically related to the district's curriculum. "Think of how much better that is than just having kids roam around and find out what's out there on their own,'' McAfee says.

Irene's e-mail capabilities let teachers communicate directly with individual parents and post homework assignments for all to see. Moreover, because the network links all the schools in the Indian River county system, teachers can discuss professional issues and classroom problems and share exemplary lesson plans at will. "We know that good teachers have good lesson plans,'' McAfee says. "With Irene, we can make that knowledge available to everyone in the county.''

Vero Beach, the county seat, sits on Florida's "Space Coast,'' about an hour south of Cape Canaveral, close enough so that locals can see and hear orbit-bound space shuttles as they lift off. The neatly laid out town, one of only a handful of communities in the otherwise rural Indian River County, is an island in a vast sea of orange and grapefruit groves.

Irene and the link it provides to the outside world via the Internet offers an educational lifeline that county residents a generation ago couldn't have dreamed possible. Peter Robinson, a local businessman who is organizing an effort to get computers into the houses of families that couldn't otherwise afford them, discovered just how wide Irene's reach is. During a recent trip to Oslo, Norway, Robinson stopped into a neighborhood cafe. "The owner,'' he says, "had set up some computers, so I sat down and logged on to Irene. I thought that was really great.''

The "Indian River idea'' might have remained largely an unfulfilled dream had the district not obtained a grant from a federal program aimed at developing what the Clinton administration has dubbed the National Information Infra-structure. In January 1994, Vice President Gore, speaking to representatives of the telecommunications industry, called on cable-television, telephone, cellular, and other communications companies to connect every classroom in the nation to the "information highway.'' In the speech, he noted that telecommunications can "give every American, young and old, the chance for the best education available to anyone, anywhere.''

While the administration has always insisted that the national technological infrastructure should be developed and deployed by the private sector, it has initiated several pilot programs to make the promise of the technology more explicit.

Funding for Irene came from the Telecommunications and Information Infrastruc-ture Assistance Program, sponsored by the U.S. Department of Commerce. When the department announced the program, it received more than 1,070 applications from around the nation and several U.S. territories. The grant requests totalled more than $560 million.

In the fall of 1994, TIIAP awarded a total of $24.4 million to 92 projects in 45 states, the District of Columbia, and the U.S. Virgin Islands, generating more than $43 million in matching funds.

The $185,000 Indian River County received has paid for many of Irene's technological upgrades and a number of other, smaller projects, as well:

  • Computer terminals were purchased and placed in the county library for members of the public to use. The library's card catalogue was placed on-line so residents can "browse'' the stacks electronically.
  • Two county teachers, with the help of students, produced a 30-minute videotape about telecomputing and how to use Irene. The tape--the first in a planned series about Irene, the Internet, and related topics--has been broadcast on the local cable-TV access channel.
  • The district piloted an on-line math tutorial this year for low-income middle school students. Students were given basic instruction in telecomputing and loaned computers.

All of Irene's accomplishments, however, are tempered somewhat by certain financial realities. One ongoing challenge is finding ways to give as many students as possible access to the network. The public library terminals provide one avenue. Robinson, who heads the Indian River Education Foundation, is pushing local businesses to donate equipment to students with financial needs. "We're considering asking them to take an elementary school and give every 5th grader a computer,'' he says.

A far more serious problem is coming up with enough money to further develop the network itself. The district learned in November that it had not been awarded a second federal grant to expand Irene's capabilities. Plans for additional upgrades will have to be put on hold. "There are just no resources available right now to pursue this,'' says district spokesman Linda Kern.

Meanwhile, Irene is continuing to give Indian River students advantages they would not otherwise have. Wendy Lee, a former Indian River County student now at Dart-mouth College, still uses the network to keep in touch with students back home at Citrus Elementary School. "It's interesting to hear from younger children, and I think it's good for them to hear a bit about college,'' she says. "Irene first introduced me to the world of telecommunications.''

--Peter West

Vol. 07, Issue 04, Page 1-24

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