Armed with spools of electrical cable and infused with old-fashioned community spirit, hundreds of Orange County residents fanned out Saturday through the community's schools to join in "NetDay 96," a statewide effort to install the computer networks that will bring campuses online with the Information Age.
Local volunteers were among the 20,000 Californians who wired 2,500 schools across the state, a public service campaign given a high-profile boost by President Clinton and Vice President Al Gore, who pitched in at a high school east of San Francisco. In all, technicians, teachers, students, and parents installed some 6 million feet of high-speed cable.
Although the wiring alone is useless without modern computers and high-speed access to the Internet, organizers of the first-of-its-kind event hope the work performed Saturday will serve as a catalyst for the massive investment needed to bring schools into the telecommunications revolution.
At 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.
In Orange County, a hub for the computer industry, more than 80 schools participated in NetDay 96, some making their first foray into the world of cyberspace and others using the event to upgrade and publicize their online projects. The event also showed how great a disparity there is among schools when it comes to high-tech teaching tools.
Officials at the Anaheim Union High School District, for example, staged a faculty teleconference to draw attention to their existing network and drum up support for future high-tech endeavors.
At Valley High in Santa Ana, though, the wiring done Saturday will go unused until more money can be found to install high-capacity cable, a project that may not be completed until next school year.
Acknowledging the worries of some critics that the project would deepen the gulf between educational haves and have-nots, President Clinton asserted that "technology is going to liberate Americans and bring them together--not hold them back."
Clinton, who has proposed creating a $2-billion fund for helping 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 last September. "We are putting the future at the fingertips of our children, and we are doing it in the best American tradition."
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, the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, was at Beethoven and he tried to console the students by promising to "reconvene in cyberspace" with Clinton and Gore in the coming weeks.
At Marina High School in Huntington Beach, technicians from nearby Rockwell International Corp. were among crews rebuilding and retooling 32 donated personal computers that will create the school's new writing lab. In hallways, volunteers and the schools computer club also ran the cable that will allow the school to get online.
"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."
Some 50 volunteers showed up at Marina High on Saturday and their labors will have students online by Monday, Principal Carol Osbrink said.
"We have to prepare these kids for the future, and this is the way of the future," Osbrink said. "This is real world now, and if we don't get them ready we haven't done our jobs."
While Marina High will have Internet access this week and already boasts an impressive multimedia lab for its 2,100 students, the Internet is still elusive at Valley High in Santa Ana--Orange County's largest high school.
Volunteers at Valley High on Saturday ran cables through the classrooms in the campus science building, but there is no money to lay the fiber-optic cables that would link the school to cyberspace. The fiber-optic technology will cost about $5,000 and teachers are hopeful that the school will find a way to swing the project in upcoming months.
"Most of our kids don't have computers at home like students at a lot of the other schools, so if they don't get it here they won't get it anywhere," chemistry teacher Cheryl Estes said. "They're really excited about the idea of going online, they just want to know when it's going to happen."
Many of Estes' students have rarely ventured out of Santa Ana, and the idea of reaching out to new places and people through the Internet could be incredibly valuable, she said. "We went to the tide pools on a field trip, not far from here at all, and I was amazed at how many of these kids had never seen a beach," Estes said. "The computers can be a door to a world they never see. It gets them really excited about learning."
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 publicity and participation generated Saturday may go a long way toward leveling the playing field between different schools attempting to tap into telecommunications, said Susanna Prentice, instructional technology coordinator for the Orange County Department of Education.
"Equity of access is a major concern," said Prentice, who visited different schools throughout the county Saturday. Prentice said support for the NetDay volunteer effort was building in the past week, and more calls came in Saturday from education and corporate groups looking to help more campuses get Internet access.
"This has really started some people talking and thinking about this, and that awareness is the great value here," she said. "It's a great starting point."
At Eastwood Elementary in Westminster, teacher Kay Plunkett said the spread of telecommunications in teaching has her students enthusiastic about their studies. Plunkett said she has taught in local schools for 40 years and has rarely seen students show more enthusiasm than when her first- and second-graders use class computers.
On Saturday, Plunkett was among the dozen teachers and volunteers getting Eastwood Elementary ready to go online.
"Every day, before and after school, there's a crowd around these computers and it's just wonderful to see," Plunkett said. "Enthusiasm for learning is caught, not taught. It's like the measles, it just spreads."
Eastwood volunteers worked Saturday not only to get the school online, but also to network campus computers so teachers can exchange electronic mail and students will be able to dip into the school library from classroom terminals. Down the road, Principal Ed Kissee said, he wants students to be able to exchange video images of themselves with distant online pen pals and to have classes take electronic tours of the Smithsonian Institution and Sea World from their chairs.
Plunkett said the possibilities delight and excite her--such as the thought that her students can craft their own home page on the World Wide Web, a collection of words and images they can post online to share with others.
"It's just amazing what we can do," she said. "Some people are a little reluctant, I know, but this the way the world is going so we have to be willing to jump right in. This is the world now."
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 Inc., in reaction to a projection that it would cost at least $1 billion to merely network the 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 firms 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 finally reached teachers and parents who seized on the opportunity.