Tech Know-Nothings

Why Johnny Can't Log On: NYC Schools and the Information Superhighway

On Saturday, April 25, about 30 New York City schools marked Net Day '98--an event started in 1996 by Sun Microsystems CEO John Gage and Michael Kaufman, currently the director of digital learning at PBS. Albeit a month after other Net Day events took place around the rest of the country, it was the day that Torrance Robinson and the group he cofounded, NYConnects, began wiring ''at least 30 public schools.'' As he tells it, the stakes are extremely high: ''We've got a mayor running around saying that we're the capital of the world, which I agree with to an extent. Just not when you look at our schools.''

The Clinton administration's goal of having nearly every public classroom wired to the Internet by the dawn of the millennium, something the mayor has said he also supports, is often seen as just so much political expediency. However, a study released last month in the journal Science gives this oft-cited mission a whole new raison d'être. The study reveals a marked difference between the numbers of white and black Americans who have access to the Internet. In households with incomes of less than $40,000, whites are six times as likely as blacks to use the World Wide Web. (For families with incomes over $40,000, Internet access was virtually the same for both blacks and whites.) A major reason for the disparity: 73 per cent of white students have access to computers at home, while only 32 per cent of black students do, according to the study. And without computers at home, the only viable way for poor minority students to access the Internet is in school.

So how is the New York City school system, the country's largest--comprising 1134 schools with a predominantly minority student population--faring in its efforts to narrow the chasm between the haves and the have-nots?

''Frankly, we're behind,'' admits Elspeth Taylor, the determined chief information officer for NYC public schools. ''We don't have good numbers, especially when compared to nonurban schools. But we're aggressively seeking to close the gap. It's very important that all students have access to the technology.''

At first glance, the numbers for how many NYC schools have some kind of Internet access don't seem that bad. According to Taylor, 75 per cent of all city elementary and middle schools, and 89 per cent of high schools have some sort of connection to the Internet. ''But these numbers are somewhat misleading,'' Taylor says. ''We need to remind people that some of these connections involve only one computer, which doesn't necessarily allow all students to have access.'' In fact, the average number of computers connected to the Internet in city schools, some of which house several thousand students, is three for elementary and middle schools and six for high schools.

Along with a small contingent of upstart community groups and upward of $250 million in city, federal, and private funds, Taylor and a network of highly motivated teachers and administrators are starting to speed things along to the point where there just may be a chance to narrow the divide.

One of the most daunting aspects of getting the city's schools wired involves infrastructure improvements needed to facilitate working Internet connections. ''Some of these schools still are firing furnaces with coal,'' said Andrew Rasiej, who was surprised to discover just how unwired the city's more dilapidated buildings were. Rasiej is the ex-owner of the club Irving Plaza and the founder of an organization called MOUSE, or Making Opportunities for Upgrading Schools and Education. The nonprofit group is dedicated to matching up New York City's burgeoning corps of new media workers with the unmet needs of the city's would-be high-tech schools.

''We thought we'd find a bunch of kids with software problems that we'd help solve,'' Rasiej says of MOUSE's initial impulses. ''But for the most part these schools have no networks. The foundation first had to be put in place.'' Or, as MOUSE's executive director, Sarah Holloway, describes the realization: ''We had to take 19 steps back.''

Wiring a school properly takes a lot of effort, not to mention quite a bit of money. A report released by the federal government's General Accounting Office earlier this year cited one study's estimate that placing one networked computer lab in each school in the United States would cost $11 billion up-front plus $4 billion in annual maintenance costs. Taylor calls the wiring, which sometimes gets hindered by discoveries of asbestos in need of removal, the ''hardest part'' of the overall tech-in-the-schools initiative. And of the $2.1 billion proposed by the Board of Ed in 1997 for the school system's five-year technology plan, Taylor says that nearly half would be set aside for ''infrastructure improvements including wiring and phone lines.''

Taylor is quick to point out that ''we don't actually have $2.1 billion, just a comprehensive strategy to fit resources into as we get them.'' (The federally mandated Universal Service Program, or the e-rate, allows schools to receive 20 to 90 per cent discountson phone service, Internet access, and other ''nonhuman'' resources associated with wiring schools.) Nonetheless, the situation is hopeful enough for Barry Hauptman, the technology coordinator for the Manhattan High Schools Superintendency, or MHSS, which represents 38 high schools and about 50,000 students, to reveal his expectation that ''all the city's schools will have significant Net connectivity within the next year and a half.''

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