Volunteers Wire 2,500 Schools on NetDay


Energized by old-fashioned community spirit, more than 20,000 volunteers Saturday helped 2,500 schools throughout the state come one step closer to the much-vaunted telecommunications future, wiring campuses so that more students can go online.

With a high-profile endorsement from President Clinton and Vice President Al Gore--who pitched in at a high school east of San Francisco--technicians, teachers, students and parents celebrated "NetDay96" by installing 6 million feet of high-speed cable on campuses desperate for technology.

Although wiring alone is useless without computers, software, high-speed access to the Internet and teacher training, organizers of the first-of-its-kind event hope that the work performed Saturday will serve as a catalyst for the massive investment needed to bring schools into the Information Age.

At a time when national surveys show fragile support for public schools, the grass-roots effort refreshed many educators, especially at schools that received an instantaneous boost.

"We will go from nothing to being networked," said Marla Humphrey, a teacher at Gladstone Elementary School in San Dimas, where 30 volunteers showed up to link 17 classrooms, work that a private company had estimated would cost $16,000. "It's so overwhelming and heartwarming to see our community and parents . . . rally together."

Clinton, who has proposed creating a $2-billion fund to help schools hook up to the Internet, praised such volunteer efforts in a speech at Ygnacio Valley High School in Concord.

"Government is not doing this alone, nor is business nor can schools do it alone," said Clinton, who helped raise the profile of the project in a visit to the state in September. "We are putting the future at the fingertips of our children, and we are doing it in the best American tradition."

Appearing to be sensitive to the worries of some critics that the project would deepen the gulf between educational haves and have-nots, Clinton asserted that "technology is going to liberate Americans and bring them together--not hold them back."

Gore said the White House was working with private industry to make sure that 500 schools in poor areas designated as empowerment zones by the federal government--including part of South-Central Los Angeles--would be hooked up to the Internet before the start of school in September. Few of the schools there participated in NetDay.

Although organizers of the event said it exceeded their expectations, a glitch involving Clinton left students at Beethoven School in Los Angeles disappointed. Technical difficulties canceled a video teleconference linking the president with Beethoven and schools in Sacramento and San Diego.

Reed Hundt, chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, was at Beethoven and tried to console the students by promising to "reconvene in cyberspace" with Clinton and Gore in the coming weeks.

NetDay was hatched by Michael Kaufman, director of information services at a San Francisco public television station, and John Gage, chief scientist for Sun Microsystems, in reaction to a projection that it would cost at least $1 billion to merely network classrooms in the state's 13,000 public and private schools.

Networks allow many computer users at once to share information or e-mail, and access the Internet with its plenitude of libraries and databases.

Leading high-tech companies including Netscape Communications, Apple Computer, MCI Communications, Microsoft, America Online and Pacific Bell signed on as sponsors, helping to pay for the $500 wiring kits that schools needed. They also distributed free Internet access accounts and software. Interest grew slowly but took off in recent weeks as word reached teachers and parents who seized on the opportunity.

Gore invited Kaufman and Gage to meet with him to talk about how NetDay might be replicated nationally or in other states. "It seems like a beginning more than an ending for the project," Kaufman said.

Schools in Northern California, where the idea originated and where many high-tech companies are based, were particularly active Saturday--ending the day with a massive pizza party in a public auditorium.

But volunteers were out in force throughout Southern California as well.

Taking part were 80 Orange County schools, including Marina High in Huntington Beach. A crew of 50, including technicians from Rockwell International and Northrop upgraded 32 personal computers there and ran thousands of feet of cable.

"We want to help support the community and education of course," said Rockwell employee Henry Meyer, who wore a "Nothin' But Net" sweatshirt. "But we also see this as a way to prepare the employees of the future so they'll be well-trained for the workplace."

In the town of Somis in Ventura County, volunteers wired all 18 classrooms of the elementary school. Central to the effort was Seth Brandes, a Sun Microsystems salesman who donated a high-speed computer through which the school will connect to the Internet.

School Superintendent Thelma Edmundson said the district decided to participate despite concerns over its liability should a volunteer get injured while working.

"Sometimes you just have to take chances to get things done," she said.

The low response in the Los Angeles Unified School District, where only about 70 of the district's 663 schools participated, illustrated some of the disparities between schools in affluent neighborhoods and those in poor ones.

Forty-five volunteers, each of whom had specific assignments, descended on Balboa Gifted Magnet School in Northridge.

"This is like laying the pipe down before you turn on the water," said Paul Goldman, a member of the school's technology committee and the father of a fourth-grader at the school. "We're trying to improve how [the school] is going to deliver education."

Thirty-five volunteers showed up at Beethoven, a small school on the Westside, which was the district's showcase campus for the event. In attendance were Hundt, Congresswoman Jane Harman (D-Rolling Hills), school board members and Superintendent Sid Thompson. Refreshments were supplied by local supermarkets and corporate sponsors pledged to donate computers.

"The real challenge is to have ongoing community involvement," said Lew Wilks, vice president and general manger at GTE West. "Hopefully, through this process we'll start something that goes to a lot more schools."

Menlo Avenue school, located just south of USC in central Los Angeles, was the only school in that part of town to take part in NetDay. The scene there offered a stark contrast to Beethoven.

Like the volunteers at Beethoven, the dozen or so at Menlo wore T-shirts commemorating the day, they fed several thousand feet of wire through the ceiling and had refreshments.

But the shirts were donated by a teacher at the school, the food was paid for by another teacher and a third teacher spent $2,000 out of her own pocket to buy the materials for the day after a snag threatened to leave the school high and dry.

"If I never see that money again I won't miss it because the children will get that much and more out of it," said Patricia Lemle, the teacher who cajoled the director of USC's telecommunications services office to round up a crew to install the wiring.

Administrators at the school said Lemle will be repaid eventually. But they also said the school must hustle to find the computers and other equipment that will be needed before students can take full advantage of the networking that's now complete.

The network "is real for schools in more affluent areas but it's not for us yet," Lemle said. "That's where having more sponsors and volunteers comes into play, so we wouldn't have to dig down so deep."

The Detwiler Foundation, which solicits used computers from companies and refurbishes them for schools, has been deluged with applications from schools that were preparing to install wiring. Statewide, schools have one computer capable of accessing the Internet for every 73 students.

"This is an enormous problem for a lot of schools because resources are being spent and volunteers are doing work but the usefulness is not being maximized because schools don't have the computers," said Dianne Detwiler, the co-founder of the San Diego-based foundation, the state's largest supplier of computers to schools.

Also contributing to this story were Times staff writers Paul Richter, Geoff Boucher, Jose Cardenas, Matea Gold, and special correspondent Miquel Helft.

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