Let's just say it wasn't an upbeat gathering over at Davis Intermediate School in San Jose, Calif.
Let’s just say it wasn’t an upbeat gathering over at Davis Intermediate School in San Jose, Calif.
I was sitting with Principal Oscar Ortiz and his boss, Oak Grove Superintendent Tony Garcia, who were talking with Jim McCarthy, the district’s technology-curriculum specialist, who had some bad news: The two dozen or so wheezing PCs in the computer lab? They were going to be all but useless by next school year.
“So that whole lab?” Ortiz asked forlornly.
Yep. Toast. The PCs, which students used for the Math Munchers program in the morning and to research planets and nutrition on the Internet, were all running Windows 2000.
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Microsoft has said it will stop supporting the operating system in July. No support means no anti-virus updates, which means the machines would surely become infected. The veteran educators in the room didn’t have to ask, “Why not just upgrade the software?” They knew.
“Most of those are Pentium III computers,” McCarthy said, explaining that the IBM desktops in the lab were about 10 years old. “That’s five generations behind.” So many generations behind that the machines can’t handle newer operating systems.
I’d come to Davis with what I thought was a simple question inspired by a survey of Silicon Valley executives released last month. In the survey by the Silicon Valley Leadership Group, 60 percent of the executives said the state’s top priority should be fixing California’s elementary, middle and high schools.
My thought? Given that so many of the executives were high-tech leaders, I wondered what they could do to help schools with technology.
Well, said Garcia, simply giving the schools a bunch of computers, printers, networking gear and the like wasn’t the answer, though schools need all that to prepare students for the 21st century. With the stuff comes a need to maintain the equipment and upgrade it and replace it when it’s outlived its usefulness. That takes money schools don’t have.
I hadn’t thought of that. In fact, it became clear very quickly I had no idea how severe the challenges are that schools face just in technology. And while Davis can’t stand as a representation of all schools, there are certainly many more schools like it.
But that’s the thing: No school can stand as a representation of all schools. When it comes to technology, the state of our schools’ readiness is all over the map. In fact, there is no real system for distributing technology tools, leaving a chaotic patchwork of have and have-not campuses.
Each school is responsible for coming up with technology money out of its own budget. And in the end, schools rely heavily on donations and volunteer time, which in turn depend heavily on the personal networks, income levels and job demands of the parents at each school.
Frost Elementary recently got 40 relatively new computers from Google. It seems a parent there works at the search giant and helped arrange for the donation of some used machines.
But there are not a lot of Googlers sending their kids to Davis, Ortiz says. “We have a large percentage of our students who are receiving free or reduced lunch.”
Not that Davis hasn’t had its own good fortune. The school did receive a grant for 72 laptops — about nine years ago. “Most of them are not functioning now,” McCarthy says.
It’s not that valley companies don’t send some money, equipment and volunteers to some local schools. It’s that their executives have plenty more to do if they want to help the state improve education.
It won’t be easy and it won’t be cheap. But these are brilliant minds who have helped build global companies, many of which are realizing fantastic profits in the face of hard times.
Certainly they can figure out a way to bring all of our schools into the 21st century.
Mike Cassidy is a columnist with the San Jose Mercury News.