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March 10, 1996 · Page
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Joann Goodwin stood on a ladder and stuck her head into the dark ceiling space at George Washington Carver Elementary School, trying to decide where to run the wires that would link her 10-year-old daughter's school with the 21st century world of the Internet.
"It's starting to make sense," she called down to two volunteers holding the ladder beneath her in the lobby of the small Bayview-Hunters Point school. "The cables run along here and then go through that wall over there."
But then, she admitted: "I'm no electrician."
Electrical experience or none, Goodwin was one of 20,000 volunteers - led by President Clinton - who climbed ladders, uncoiled cable and maneuvered crawl spaces in more than 2,600 California schools Saturday for NetDay96. Their goal was to hardwire the miracle of technology into the state's education system.
Clinton joined the wiring effort during a visit to a Concord high school. Addressing a flag-waving crowd of 4,500 at Ygnacio Valley High, he praised the volunteers for "putting the future at the fingertips of your children, and doing it in the best American tradition - together."
Like Goodwin at Carver Elementary, the president stood on a ladder at Ygnacio Valley High feeding cable into a ceiling crawl space hand over hand. Inside a nearby classroom, Vice President Al Gore stepped off a ladder onto a stone-topped sink to pull the three strands of cable into the room. He and Clinton watched as a volunteer electrician made the final connections before surfing the Net and talking with cabinet members around the state via the Internet.
"What you are doing today is America at its best, and it is guaranteeing America's future," he told the crowd. "You will leave your children a legacy. . . . You can tell them that you were a pioneer."
Clinton said jobs and the future would depend on efforts such as Saturday's event to wire 20 percent of California's 13,000 public schools for the Internet, which would double the number of schools with access to the Internet.
"If we want to keep the American Dream alive for every single person who is willing to work for it, we know that more than ever before we have to give all Americans the skills . . . they need," Clinton said.
Gore said he had tracked the success of NetDay on the World Wide Web site, noting the effort first announced in September at the Exploratorium had attracted 15,000 volunteers statewide as of last week, and another 5,000 by Saturday. "Some people said we couldn't do it. They didn't understand California," Gore said. "California has risen to the challenge."
Clinton said he had heard criticism that schools need the basic books and facilities to help kids learn before they get computer technology. "Yes, if everybody has those skills, our school districts will be wealthier, and better," he said. "But we do not have to choose."
Clinton said NetDay's success could generate an expanded volunteer effort in the schools, which would help maintain facilities and fix problems.
Around the state, volunteers ranging from high school students and parents to computer experts from hundreds of participating corporations, quickly learned that technology is not nearly as miraculous as it sometimes seems. In this case, it required a large amount of what one participant described as "grunt work."
"Most of this is not rocket science," said software engineer Rob Currie, a volunteer who led about 30 others through the modernization effort at Carver Elementary in The City.
On a chalk board he drew a diagram of the W-shaped school, showing the general route the computer cables would take.
"Basically," he said, "we're going to cut holes through the ceiling tiles and run wires down the walls."
After a few hours of leading wires and passing cable ties to volunteers on ladders, Bayview-Hunters Point resident Diana Jackson was starting to look like a trained technician.
"When you look at a computer, you don't realize how much work goes on behind the scenes," said Jackson. Jackson's 6-year-old daughter, D'Lynn Seymore, is in kindergarten at Carver Elementary and is already learning about computers with the school's antiquated machines - 30 Apple IIEs that one teacher described as "dinosaurs."
Ironically, all the work performed Saturday, the 6 million feet of wire and the thousands of dollars of equipment and expertise, donated by companies including Pacific Bell, Microsoft and Sun Microsystems, are not enough to guarantee that schools like Carver can hook up to the Internet.
At Carver, which was one of 37 San Francisco schools wired for the Internet Saturday, the cables won't even be connected to anything until school officials can raise $2,000 to $5,000 to buy more equipment needed to make the Internet connection. Even then it will take another $15,000 or so for the school to buy up-to-date Macintosh computers that will allow the students to really take advantage of the Internet.
Compared with other schools around the state, Carver is relatively advanced when it comes to technology. Although, 86 percent of its 389 student come from impoverished families, the proud little school has its own, out-of-date computer lab that each student can use once a week, and two classrooms where Internet access is available.
Even if it can't be used right away, the wiring put in Saturday will at least start schools on their way toward the goal of having workable technology, Currie said.
School officials said they hope NetDay96 will make parents and companies aware of the technological plight of the schools and encourage donations.
"We need new computers," said Laura Lebber, who is in charge of the school's computer lab. "Yet, not all schools are as wealthy as we are. Not all schools have a lab with 30 computers, even if they are relics."
"I would love to see companies start donating (equipment)," she said, adding she would be glad to sell the name of her classroom to land a sponsor, just like The City sold the name of Candlestick Park to fund its renovations.
"I could call this 3Com lab," she said, pointing out the window in the direction of the newly named park, not even a mile away, "because 3Com Park is right over there."
Leevele McCray, the parent of a Carver fourth-grader, convinced his company, GE Capital, to donate equipment to the effort. He said the most important thing that could come out of NetDay96 is for Californians to realize how much the public schools still need.
"Schools should be first in the field of technology," he said. "These kids are our future. We should take every dime we can muster and put it here for the kids."
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