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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Computers Help Classes Click, Teachers Say Bond Would Let Schools Upgrade Technology, Plug More Students Into High-Tech Education

The boy pulled off his coat and handed a portable computer to his first-grade teacher. He didn’t turn in his homework, though. The computer deleted it.

A new spin on the dog-ate-my-homework excuse, perhaps?

Janice Petrin, who routinely sends the little green computers home with students, didn’t think so. Her fault, she said. It wasn’t properly charged.

Not all Spokane School District 81 first-graders pack computers home. Petrin’s students at Bemiss Elementary School went high-tech after she won district grant money earmarked for computers.

But educators say all kids would have more access to computers if voters approve a $74.5 million bond in February. About a third of the money would go for technology: $12.6 million to buy equipment and $12.8 million to rewire the schools.

Teachers like Petrin are hoping taxpayers want computerized classrooms as much as they do. Last year, when her north Spokane school purchased some computers, teachers had a lottery to decide who got them.

“It makes learning fun, interesting,” said Petrin.

After a quick flag pledge, she launched into the day’s first activity, signing onto the Internet for a look at winter Olympics events. Today’s topic: bobsled races.

“These guys go 50 miles per hour,” Petrin told her entranced students, who watched as the computer image was projected onto a screen.

“Holy cow!” a boy answered. “I want to go that fast.”

Upstairs, Jeanne Sattler’s fourth-grade class works on computers three times a day, taking turns on equipment also purchased with grant money. They visit CNN and White House Web sites, do science research and write essays.

“In the real world, everything’s on computers. That’s going to give us the competitive edge,” Sattler said. “If (the bond) doesn’t pass, we’re getting farther and farther behind.”

Computer use is growing rapidly in offices and homes. In five years, the number of personal computers sold worldwide has doubled to 85 million annually, according to Dataquest, a San Jose research firm.

But Spokane voters rejected a $30 million computer tax four years ago, leaving the district to try to finance computers from grants, donations and the regular budget.

Some of the district’s 1,517 classrooms have no computers, while many have at least one. The district says it has 2,359 instructional computers that are less than a decade old, plus about 2,000 older models that don’t run new software and can’t be networked.

The bond could supply about 4,000 new computers, along with other equipment, such as printers and scanners.

District officials can’t say precisely how the money would be spent. That’s because technology changes quickly and schools would get the money over a three- to five-year period, said Joe Austin, the district’s technology director.

Administrators also decided to have each school draft its own plan outlining what it hopes to purchase, rather than implement a one-size-fits-all plan for the entire district. After all, teachers are the ones who’ll use the equipment, said Austin.

Scores of teachers, administrators, parents and students helped with those plans, which are to be updated annually.

“We struggled with this concept of having schools come up with their own technology plans, but we really think that’s the best way to do it,” said Austin.

It also means not all classrooms will be equipped alike.

At Bemiss, Petrin’s colleagues decided on a lab with 30 new computers, seven printers, two digital cameras, two scanners and other assorted equipment.

Salk Middle School teachers have an elaborate five-year plan that includes classroom computers, library workstations and computercompatible televisions.

Others want carts to tote computers from room to room.

Nationwide, educators are divided on whether they should scatter computers through classrooms or cluster them in labs, said William Winn, a professor who specializes in classroom technology at the University of Washington.

But they agree computers should be used as tools in a variety of classes, rather than as the central focus of any class.

Technology specialists at the U.S. Department of Education say occasional visits to labs don’t give children enough exposure to computers.

While the plans for District 81’s computers may vary, the desire for them is pretty uniform. Tour the schools and teachers rattle off the benefits of technology.

At North Central High, music students share a single computer that lets them write and edit music, playing it back on headphones. Music teacher Gene Newton wants 15 or 20 more just like it.

“Any kind of job you go into - studio work - you’ve got to know this technology or you’re going to be lost,” he said.

Wally Driscoll, a fifth-grade teacher at Roosevelt Elementary School, didn’t wait for the district to buy computers. Over several years, he purchased 20 older models himself and lined them up along a back wall where students write essays and stories.

“It does allow them to write in ways they don’t usually write in,” he said. “It allows them to play with text.”

Teachers name kids whose lives seemingly changed with the click of a mouse.

“She was suddenly a woman with a computer,” says humanities teacher Sarann Graham, describing a North Central student who lives at a shelter with her mom. “The quality of her work has increased twofold.”

Graham gets goosebumps thinking about the students who decided to send electronic mail to the scientist who cloned Dolly the sheep. He responded the next day.

“I couldn’t believe they had access to someone like that,” she said.

The most important thing for teachers to know is when to use computers and when to rely on traditional teaching methods, said UW’s Winn.

“(Teachers) need to pay very serious attention to selecting those things computers are good at and limiting classroom use to those things.”

There’s a reason the Internet is called “the information superhighway” and not “the knowledge superhighway,” he said. Teachers must make sure kids seek out data that relates to what they’re learning in class.

Winn recalls a student who turned in a writing project that referred readers to various Web sites. Winn rejected it, realizing the student could have done the entire project without ever absorbing the material himself.

Computers are also great for repetitive activities and helping kids memorize facts, he said. But they’re no replacement for good teaching.

“It’s far more fruitful to have a brainstorming group in a classroom than to go into chat rooms,” Winn said.

In Spokane, Teachers will have access to training at the Libby Center, and principals will make sure teachers are competent on the computers.

Teachers have other concerns, too. Some want assurances that computers won’t replace good books. Others wonder how to handle writing assignments for students who haven’t learned to type and how to measure kids’ progress on computers. Some report cards already have sections to rank computer skills, which many teachers ignore.

To deal with some of those issues, a team of educators is drafting checklists for what students should know when.

Kindergartners, for instance, would learn to identify a keyboard, monitor and mouse. By the end of second grade, they’d know how to start and shut down the computer properly.

They’d begin learning to use the right fingers on a keyboard in third grade. That year, they’d also create tables, a skill they’d be expected to master by sixth grade.

“What we’re trying to do is move keyboarding younger and younger if we have enough computers for them to practice,” said Fran Mester, director of instructional programs.

By the time students left grade school, they should be able to create computerized slide shows. They’d also begin learning to scan photographs into computers.

Students now learn computer skills sporadically, depending on what equipment and training their teachers have. Some only tap computer keys on occasional field trips to the Libby Center.

Some have computers at home, but many don’t. Petrin started sending portable computers home with her students after learning only 5 of her 24 students had computers at home.

Petrin isn’t sure what taxpayers will think of the bond. But she’s hoping for the enthusiastic response she recently got from a group of North Side parents.

Petrin offered an after-school class for parents and students on her green Apple E-mate computers. More than 100 people signed up, so most ended up on a waiting list.

The parents who made the cut are as captivated as their kids at the weekly sessions, where there’s one computer for each of 16 families.

“They’re passing them around,” said Petrin. “They’re all trying to help each other.”

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color photo

MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: CITYLINE

Technology upgrades would account for about a third of the $74.5 million bond that voters will face Feb. 3. Another $18 million would help renovate Lewis and Clark High School, while the rest would go for a new Browne Elementary School and to renovating high school science rooms. The bond would boost taxes for the owner of a $100,000 home to $146 per year through 2009. Homeowners now pay $99 each year for a bond that expires in 2003. It needs a 60 percent approval from voters to pass. About 26,000 people must vote for the election to be valid. Do you have questions about the bond issue? Let us know by calling Cityline at 458-8800 on a touch-tone phone and then pressing 9884. Please leave your name and a daytime phone number. We’ll answer as many questions as we can in upcoming stories.

This sidebar appeared with the story: CITYLINE

Technology upgrades would account for about a third of the $74.5 million bond that voters will face Feb. 3. Another $18 million would help renovate Lewis and Clark High School, while the rest would go for a new Browne Elementary School and to renovating high school science rooms. The bond would boost taxes for the owner of a $100,000 home to $146 per year through 2009. Homeowners now pay $99 each year for a bond that expires in 2003. It needs a 60 percent approval from voters to pass. About 26,000 people must vote for the election to be valid. Do you have questions about the bond issue? Let us know by calling Cityline at 458-8800 on a touch-tone phone and then pressing 9884. Please leave your name and a daytime phone number. We’ll answer as many questions as we can in upcoming stories.

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