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School System Works to Make Internet Accessible

Hand-held and laptop computers, along with community-access computer labs provide students access to the Web.

About 140 seventh-graders at Frost Middle School, located in Fairfax, were assigned a Jornada, a hand-held computer with portable keyboard made by Hewlett Packard, as part of a pilot program, “K12nects,” last year.

The administrators at the school soon learned that although the students had no trouble operating the hand-helds — the devices are about the same size as a Nintendo Game Boy — the students did have some trouble accounting for its whereabouts at times.

"We did have some glitches and learned a lot. Last year, we gave them nice leather pouches to carry the Jornada. They would leave them on their lockers or wherever," said Andrew Mark, Frost assistant principal and the school's information technology specialist. "This year, we're giving them something that resembles a pencil pouch that goes in their binder. It's not as visible, and it's attached."

Throughout the Woodson pyramid, the object of the K12nects project is to reduce the digital divide and to create access to high-end computing devices, the Internet and other digital communication devices. The K12nects technology project is sponsored by the Fairfax County Public Schools’ (FCPS) Departments of Information Technology and Instructional Services, by FCPS Cluster III, and by the FCPS Education Foundation, a

not-for-profit corporation, in partnership with the business community. And it is just one way the school system is trying to bring the Internet to all students, especially those who may not have it at home.

THE SCHOOL SYSTEM piloted what is called “FCPS 24/7 Learning” in the 2001-02 school year. The program allows teachers, parents and students to remain in communication through the Internet. Teachers can post homework and class assignments and other class-related information on the Web, and parents and students in that class can access it from anywhere that has an Internet connection and at any time.

"It's a password-protected program, so only students in that class can access it," Mark said. "Teachers can post homework, quizzes and tests.

If a students is out two or three days, he or she can pull it up and do the work."

One of the challenges, however, is to ensure all students have access to the technology. The school system has never done a systemwide survey to see just how many students do not have access at home. Instead, individual schools conduct their own surveys. For example, at Stuart High School, which has the largest number of high-school students on free or reduced-priced lunches, 85 percent of the student body has Internet access at home.

There are several initiatives under way throughout the school system, ranging from providing students hand-held or laptop computers to establishing computer labs in school that are available to students and parents after schools hours and creating computer labs in nearby residential complexes.

"Most of the labs are housed in elementary schools because they are within walking distance," said Maribeth Luftglass, the FCPS assistant superintendent for the Department of Information Technology and the chief information officer. "The labs are available to all students and parents. We provided the wiring, and the computers are donated. The computers have filtering. The staffing is provided by the county."

There are five in-school community computer labs that have been established so far. In addition, Annandale Terrace and Graham Road elementary schools have labs located in nearby apartment complexes. The apartment-complex management donates the room; the school system provides the Internet access; and the computers are donated.

At some schools, such as Woodley Hills Elementary School, the students are issued laptop computers in September, which they return in June. They can take the computers home, and Starpower donates wireless Internet access. Hunters Woods and Mantua elementary schools are two of the schools where students are assigned the Jornada for the school year.

"THE JORNADA uses a simple version of Word and Excel and can be used as a mini computer," Mark said. "We're looking to expand the program this year. We're looking to give the devices to about 320 students this year."

Along with the hand-helds, the school has also been wired in every room for Internet access, and mobile laptop computer labs are used. The mobile labs, used in several schools, allow specially designed charts loaded up with laptop computers to be wheeled into classrooms when needed, eliminating the need for the class to trek to a computer lab located somewhere in the building.

Luftglass said a key to the FCPS 24/7 Learning is the program it utilizes, Blackboard.com, which is a Web-based program. All that is needed to access it is Internet access.

"You don't need high-end programs," Luftglass said. "Any facility that has public-use computers, such as a library or apartment-complex computer room, can be used."