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Roundtable Survey - Schools and Technology

January 29, 2000|By BRUCE HAMILTON

Washington County Schools offer better-than-average access to computers and the Internet, according to a Maryland Business Roundtable for Education study released Wednesday.

But the report also cites the county's shortcomings, such as a low number of newer, faster computers, and inequities throughout the school system. While some students operate state-of-the-art machines, others use dinosaurs.

"Our goal for the last several years has been to put more computers in the classrooms," said Elizabeth Klein, technology director for Washington County Schools. "We're still striving toward it and we're making progress."

Overall, local schools have one computer for every five students, according to the report. Only five other counties have a better proportion. The average state ratio is six students to one computer.

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Students can access the Internet in 58 percent of the state's classrooms, but 72 percent of Washington County's classrooms are connected, according to the report. Fourteen other counties have a higher percentage.

The report includes separate data on mid- to high-capacity computers, defined as those machines with a 486/68040 processor or faster. Generally, computers with slower processors cannot connect well to the Internet.

Washington County's ratio is nine students to every mid/high capacity computer, the report says. Sixteen other counties have a better proportion. The state's ratio is 12 to 1 and the nation's is 10 to 1.

Of the county's school computers, 56 percent have CD-ROMs, compared to the state average of 70 percent. Television reception is in 63 percent of the county's classrooms, compared to a 70 percent state average.

The report emphasizes the state's improvement since Gov. Parris Glendening launched a campaign to give every student access to the Internet in 1996. The Technology in Maryland Schools program made money available for equipment.

Since 1995, the number of students per computer has dropped from eight to six. During the same period, the number of students per mid/high capacity computer fell from 16 to one.

In 1997, 23 percent of the state's classrooms had Internet access, but last year 58 percent were connected. The Maryland State Department of Education, which helped collect the survey data, has a goal of 100 percent.

Conducted in October and November 1999, the survey confirms a so-called "digital divide" between students who have access to computers and those who don't. The MBRT report suggests wealthier areas have more or better technology in schools.

But inequities within the Washington County school system aren't necessarily due to economic conditions.

North Hagerstown High School has the most students and sits in an affluent area, but its student-to-computer ratio is one of the worst among local high schools.

"Our potential is not being realized," said George Cassutto, who teaches computer applications.

North recently added high-capacity computers, including five Gateway model 450 processors in the media center. Speedy machines make a lot of difference, according to the students.

"It helps a lot being able to access the Web faster," said Austin Colby, president of North's computer club.

With slow machines, a 10-question assignment can take an entire class, according to the sophomore.

"Our main problem is it takes too long and it's slowing down the speed of the class," said Aaron Rock, a club member. "People need to be aware that we really need faster computers in the school."

Some schools have a hodgepodge of models, making it harder to share information. Boonsboro Middle School Technology Coordinator Laurel Longnecker said her school got a lot of MacIntosh machines before the county picked a Microsoft server.

"We have a mixed platform," she said.

About 85 percent of the teachers use Macs, she said. As a result, some software like a math supervisor program has to be loaded individually, not onto the server.

"It's great that everybody in the building has a computer," she said. "It's wonderful and it's terrible at the same time." Longnecker echoed students' concerns. "We have Internet access, but it's very slow," she said.

Technology's rapid pace makes it harder for schools to meet goals.

"What was a high capacity computer in 1997 no longer is," said Klein.

She filled the Washington County Board of Education's newly created position of technology last year.

She said county schools are making good progress with technology. "We were very aggressive in getting schools to apply for state grants," she said. "We've made tremendous ground."

At least eight schools stand to get TIMS grants approved in the spring and more are ready to apply in a second round, according to Klein. State-sponsored "Net weekends" and wiring projects are increasing connections and Internet access.

Superintendent of Schools Herman G. Bartlett Jr.'s budget proposal includes $162,300 for computers at Clear Spring Elementary and South Hagerstown High schools, which are being renovated.

Klein said the county has an advantage over neighboring jurisdictions because of its wide area network, infrastructure connecting schools electronically. Eventually each class will have a computer, according to the director.

But the difficult task is keeping old computers current, she said. "It's going to be a challenge."

The MBRT report is available online at msde.aws.com.

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