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VENTURA COUNTY NEWS

Despite Vows, Schools Slip Through Net

Computers: Although every campus in the county is wired for the Web, many lack the financial, technological or human resources to link up classrooms.

May 14, 2000|ANNA GORMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Despite years of political pledges to get all schoolchildren access to the Internet, the job is still only partly completed in Ventura County, according to the latest available data.

Though every campus is wired for the Web, many have not extended Internet access into the classrooms. And that, educators say, could put students at a disadvantage when they enter college or the working world.

"It's a matter of money and priority," said County Supt. of Schools Chuck Weis. "With the limited dollars available, schools have to set priorities and make the decision on where Internet access is most necessary."

These are some of the barriers schools face in getting their classrooms connected to the Web:

*Antiquated computers. Students at some campuses are still working on computers that are more than a decade old. Many of those computers are so outdated that they cannot be connected to the Internet.

*Insufficient electric wiring. When schools were originally built, officials did not make plans for wiring. So maintenance workers have had to rip out floors and tear into walls to install cables and phone jacks.

*Small technology staff. Few schools have an employee whose sole job is to install computers, connect them and maintain them.

*Classroom shortages. Overcrowded campuses, in many cases, must concentrate their funds on building classrooms rather than wiring them for the Internet.

"It's totally up to the districts how they set up Internet access at each of their school sites," said Ken Prosser, director of information technology services for the county schools office. "But there aren't always enough resources."

State data from the 1998-1999 school year show that half of Ventura County's 20 districts were below the state average of 46% of classrooms with Internet access for that year.

Among the county's larger districts, 18% of Ventura Unified classrooms had Internet access. The numbers were 33% for Conejo Valley Unified, 36% for Simi Valley Unified and 53% for the Oxnard Union High School District.

Because of the speed of technological growth in California, school officials say this year's numbers may be significantly different from last year. But they say the statistics still have some value as a measurement.

Educators estimate that it costs between $50,000 and $100,000 to get a school wired for the Web. To get the money, schools may apply for state grants, lobby for private business donations or hold PTA fund-raisers.

School officials say they don't have enough technology experts to apply for grants, work with businesses and handle all the other chores involved in planning widespread Internet access.

Weis' office provides schools with Internet access, but the campuses have to buy the computers and pay for wiring. In an effort to save money, several schools have placed all of their Web-accessible computers in the library or a central lab.

Ted Malos, director of technology for Ventura Unified, said he estimates the percentage of classrooms with Internet access has doubled this year--to nearly 40%. The district's goal, he said, is to have one or more network computers in every classroom. That task is more difficult--and more expensive--in older schools, where the technical staff deals with obstacles such as asbestos and no pathways for cables.

Kathy Robinson, director of information services for the Simi Valley Unified School District, said her district's dilemma has been a lack of technology experts.

"It's always been a priority for us, but we just didn't have the staffing to do it," she said.

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But Robinson said the district recently hired technology trouble-shooters, who have done some additional wiring and connecting this year.

At Royal High School in Simi Valley, administrators say that less than one-fifth of the classrooms have access to the Web. Mary Riggs, who teaches English and English-language development, has tried for years to get every classroom online. She said the central computer lab is often crowded, or not functioning, leaving her students without Internet access much of the time.

"It's very frustrating," she said. "The future is technology jobs for all these kids, and school is where they should be learning this."

Riggs said many of her students don't have computers at home, so they and their parents rely on the school to get them up to speed.

The campus, however, is slated to receive a $735,000 Digital High School grant, one of the statewide sources of technology funds for schools.

"I'll be really excited if everything is in place and working when we come back to school next August," she said. "That would be more than a miracle."

Ventura High School, on the other hand, has Web-accessible computers in every classroom, and 28 in the library, according to librarian Clyde Hofflund.

The state Department of Education selected Ventura High as a Digital High School in 1997 and awarded the campus $773,400 to update its technology.

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