Seven Ventura County high schools got a lucky boost into the Information Age on Tuesday, winning nearly $3 million in state money to buy new computers and modems, train teachers in technology and plug into the Internet.
The money is to be awarded as part of the state's $100-million Digital High School Program, which was launched after an education task force found that California's public schools are lagging far behind other states in computer availability and Internet access for students.
Chosen at random during a lottery at the state Department of Education headquarters in Sacramento, the schools are expected to receive the money early next year.
"We've been putting together computers by piecemeal for years," said Dennis O'Dea, a technology teacher at Channel Islands High School, which won $809,100. "This is just great."
O'Dea said Channel Islands High relies heavily on local businesses to donate computers--many of them outdated and incapable of being hooked up to the Internet--for classroom use. So he and other local educators rejoiced at Tuesday's announcement.
The other winners were:
* Hueneme High, $879,000.
* Ventura High, $773,400.
* Oak Park and Oak View highs, $230,100.
* The county's Juvenile Hall high school program, $172,500.
* Renaissance High School in Santa Paula, $40,000.
In addition, the county's special education program was awarded $26,400.
Award totals were based on the size of enrollment, with each school drawn in the lottery getting about $300 per student.
Ventura County Schools Supt. Charles Weis said the slant toward west county winners was merely the luck of the draw.
Nearly all of the state's 461 public school districts with high schools applied for the technology lottery, submitting a list of schools in their districts that they deemed the most lacking in computers.
Weis said he wants local teachers to use new hardware and software to teach job skills, such as spreadsheet analysis. He also encouraged greater use of the Internet in classroom research.
"It's greater access to information," he said. "That's what the World Wide Web is all about."
The Digital High School program was introduced by Gov. Pete Wilson in January after a state education task force released a report urging schools to step up computer training to prepare students for the modern job market.
State officials said the task force ranked California 43rd among states in terms of Internet access for students. The state ranks 45th in computers per student, with the ratio of one computer per 73 pupils, officials said.
"California is the home of Silicon Valley and the home of Hollywood," said Delaine Eastin, state superintendent of public instruction. "For California to be near the bottom in computers is terrible for our kids. Computers are the new job requirement. . . . This is a real good step in the right direction."
Statewide, 216 high schools with a total of 334,000 students were selected. Before getting the money, each school must detail what equipment it wants to buy and how it will be used. State officials say they are working on a program to fund the upkeep of the new equipment with annual grants.
At Ventura High, Principal Larry Emrich said the school has many students and teachers who are Internet-savvy. It's just that there are not enough up-to-date computers, he said.
"It always seems that schools are behind, that what they have is obsolete," Emrich said. "We're lacking the numbers so that all kids can have access.'
He said the new equipment will be used for "not just Internet access, not just research, but spreadsheets, word processing, graphics."
Relative to some of its neighboring districts, the Oak Park Unified School District is computer-rich. But Supt. Marilyn Lippiatt said the state money will push the district closer to its goal of one computer for every five students and a computer for every teacher.
Right now, the ratio is about one computer for every 10 students and one for every two teachers, Lippiatt said.
Gay Smoot, a state education technology consultant, said the program is geared toward making students comfortable with computers because they will need them in virtually any job.
Greater Internet access will help students working on science projects and book reports, for instance, to learn information-gathering techniques, she said.
"The Internet expands the information, the accessibility and the currency of the information," Smoot said. "You'll get a lot more information than in, heaven forbid, 15-year-old encyclopedias."