A national movement to wire schools to the Internet hits South Hampton Roads today, a volunteer effort touted as a way to save local taxpayers thousands of dollars while equipping children with skills to compete in an increasingly technological society.
Several hundred volunteers-parents, students, teachers, and business and community groups-are expected to descend on eight schools in Norfolk and Portsmouth to install cable and hardware.
By the end of the day, dozens of classrooms will be outfitted with the infrastructure needed to hook into the Internet, a global computer network that puts the world at student's fingertips.
Any school or school district able to garner volunteers and the cash or equipment donations needed to wire classrooms can participate in the NetDay '96 project, a grassroots endeavor launched last March in California.
Today's event is part of NetDay East '96, involving communities in Virginia, Maryland and the District of Columbia.
Local volunteers will wire classrooms in five public and one private school in Norfolk and in three Portsmouth schools. In Norfolk, they are Booker T. Washington High, Northside and Azalea Gardens middle schools, Larrymore and Monroe elementary schools and the private Christ the King School. In Portsmouth, they're Emily Spong, Churchland Academy and Douglass Park Earth and Space elementary schools.
"For the community to come together to give these kids the opportunity to get computer knowledge is really exciting," said John McLin, who helps manage Norfolk Naval Shipyard's computer network and is providing techinical expertise at Booker T. Washington today. "There'll be nothing but payoff."
Various businesses have donated wiring kits to the schools, each kit containing enough cable and hardware to wire six classrooms. The going commercial rate to do that number of classes could run as much as $2,500 in labor and equipment, NetDay organizers say.
"We're going to wire this building, and it's going to cost the city and the School Board nothing," said Northside Middle assistant principal Syble Stone.
Technology in the schools is no longer a luxury, school official say. Virginia's new academic requirements-Standards of Learning-spell out what students must learn in each grade.
By the end of eighth grade, students now are expected to know how to access information on the Internet and have a range of other computer skills.
Now, Stone said, Northside has one computer, in the school's media center, hooked to the Internet-for about 1,050 students. The school needs about 300 computers to meet the state's recommended five per classroom, she said.
Booker T. Washington has raised about $25,000, while Northside has generated about $8,000, enough to wire all their classrooms. Other schools will wire at least six classrooms.
Even with wiring, Internet access won't be automatic. Some schools will need additional equipment to hook computers to a network, while others will need additional phone lines and power connections. Booker T. hopes to raise $100,000 to get completely online; the school had hoped to provide cable "drops" for seven computers per class, but will have to settle for one wired computer in each class until more cash is raised, said PTA president Andrea Adams.
"It's a far cry from having nothing, but it's definitely an ongoing effort," Adams said.
While the volunteer effort wins applause, some say that providing schools with technology remains government's responsibility.
"Having a grass-roots effort like this sometimes allows us to do things
quicker, but I'd hate to see that used as an excuse not to provide tax
dollars," said Rodney Jordan, a volunteer at Monroe Elementary.