PAGE ONE (SACRAMENTO) -- NetDay96 School Plan Hits Snags / Clinton challenge to wire classrooms

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Friday, March 1, 1996 · Page A1
© 1996 San Francisco Chronicle

PAGE ONE (SACRAMENTO) -- NetDay96 School Plan Hits Snags
Clinton challenge to wire classrooms

Robert B. Gunnison, Chronicle Sacramento Bureau


Despite President Clinton's urging, many California schools are bypassing his ambitious program to wire hundreds of classrooms for computers that would connect them to the Internet.

Clinton challenged California last fall to join in a ``high-tech barn raising'' called NetDay96 on March 9 by wiring one-fifth of classrooms to bring more of the state's 5.3 million pupils into the age of Bill Gates.

Many schools, however, are barely in the age of Thomas Edison. Aging buildings, lack of electrical outlets, asbestos and other concerns are gumming up the program in many areas of the state.

``When we've got leaky roofs, filling a room with technology seems stupid,'' said Kevin Gordon, a lobbyist for the California School Boards Association. ``It's like serving filet mignon to someone who's starving.''

To demonstrate their commitment, Clinton and Vice President Al Gore plan to make a California visit, perhaps to a school in Contra Costa County, to meet with NetDay workers.

Because of the decentralized nature of the event, it is almost impossible to determine what will actually happen a week from Saturday, or whether Clinton's goal of wiring 20 percent of California's 360,000 classrooms by the end of the school year will be met.

NetDay organizers hope for volunteers at every school in California to wire five classrooms and one other room, perhaps the school library, for computers that can then be connected to the Internet. But even with 11,000 volunteers already signed up, some schools have enrolled few -- or none.

And before the volunteers arrive to wire classrooms, school administrators have major concerns:

-- Some schools simply are not ready for computer installations. Many San Francisco schools, for instance, lack the electrical outlets needed to run computers, modems and printers. ``We're very much committed to getting on the Internet,'' said Eric Boutwell of the San Francisco Unified School District. ``But what are you going to plug into?''

-- Administrators are not eager for volunteers to work in buildings that are the domain of district employees. ``We don't ever discourage volunteers, but this is just a little different,'' said Dave Gordon, superintendent of the Elk Grove Unified School District in Sacramento. ``We're very careful to make sure the work is well- planned.''

-- Many large school districts already have computer installation programs far more ambitious than that envisioned by NetDay. ``We've been doing NetDay for 2 1/2 years,'' said Norman Neville of Saddleback Valley Unified School District in Orange County. ``I just don't think the original concept would fly.''

Last week, Clinton called NetDay ``the biggest next step in our campaign to make sure that by the year 2000, every single classroom and every single library in this country is hooked up to the Internet.''

On September 21 in San Francisco, Clinton said 2,500 California classrooms would be wired for computers by the end of the school year.

NetDay organizers John Gage and Michael Kaufman said in an interview this week that the goal is ``doable,'' but they have no way of knowing how many schools will take part.

Gage, a vice president of Sun Microsystems, and Kaufman, a KQED executive, created NetDay to boost the number of Internet-accessible computers available to California pupils. In 1994, fewer than 75,000 high-grade computers were available for 5.4 million students -- roughly one computer for every 72 students. And only a small percentage of them are wired to the Internet.

It is estimated that fully equipping schools with computers would cost $6 billion initially and about $2 billion annually, about $400 per student per year.

Gage and Kaufman say NetDay will begin the job for a fraction of the cost, although they were unable to provide exact figures. Already, they said, 2,000 wiring kits have been donated and more are expected.

Kaufman says he and Gage are already planning a second NetDay for schools that do not complete the wiring March 9.

But before the first NetDay can be completed, the vast education bureaucracy, from administrators to building maintenance personnel, must become involved. And some are plainly apprehensive.

The California School Boards Association recently warned its members: ``Because school districts . . . are the legal entities responsible for asbestos compliance, fire safety, insurance liability and collective bargaining contract enforcement whenever work is done by employees, vendors or volunteers, it is critical that you are aware of what is happening at your school sites.''

Although installing computers for students is a ``dream come true'' for community volunteers, it is the ``worst nightmare'' for school technology and maintenance directors, says Warren Williams, a computer director for Grossmont Union High School District in San Diego County.

NetDay Web pages boasted yesterday of more than 11,000 volunteers, and the list was growing by about 1,000 a day, but a check of individual schools shows that many are without volunteers and others list one or two who describe themselves as ``quick learner/willing volunteer.''

Often lacking are sponsors and volunteers who can oversee the installation of wiring that must meet numerous strict standards. Some counties show few or no volunteers at all.

``We are not counting on too many people showing up,'' said Brian Swagerty, the only volunteer in Siskiyou County. ``I don't think we're going to do a whole lot.''

Swagerty works for his county's office of education and has already overseen the installation of a computer network linking 48 schools in a county so rural that it is classified as ``frontier'' by the federal government.

In other areas that might not be considered the frontier, word was slow to reach some school administrators. Will Pool, principal of Fairview Elementary School in Modesto, said his district is installing its own system.

``What is NetDay?'' he asked. ``I have not heard about this.''

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