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March 09, 2005

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Palo Alto Online

Publication Date: Wednesday, March 09, 2005

Conference highlights schools' e-volution Conference highlights schools' e-volution (March 09, 2005)

Palo Alto to host three day event spotlighting technology

by Alexandria Rocha

At the start of the personal computer revolution, most schools had a single tech lab.

Eager adolescents took turns on the limited Apple II's, playing Oregon Trail and Math Munchers -- the schools' desperate attempt to provide educational software, which wasn't widely available at the time. As students timidly learned to point and click, their faces reflected neon green --the monitor's only color.

Today's Palo Alto students create Web site businesses and edit full-length films, illustrating how far technology in schools has progressed.

In less than two weeks, the Palo Alto Unified School District will host a national conference to highlight that very fact. The three-day event is sponsored by the National School Board Association, which is holding two similar programs in Scarsdale, N.Y., and De Soto, Kan., this spring.

The conference in Palo Alto is meant to satisfy curiosities about what classrooms are like in the heart of Silicon Valley. Officials will share the hurdles, growing pains and rewards that have come with being a leading school district in the realm of classroom technology.

During the event, participants will visit schools, hear panel discussions and take part in break-out sessions. There will also be opportunities to attend special events and dinners at Apple Computers, Dell, Blackboard, Google and the Midpeninsula Community Media Center.

From elementary to middle to high school, technology interest and access in Palo Alto is heavier than those outside of the Valley. Like districts everywhere, however, advancements were slow to start.

John Tuomy, a former school board president, said the local district had about six teachers who were proficient in computers in the late '70s. Also at that time, the public schools were lucky to have one computer each, he said.

When the first systems started arriving in large boxes at schools, the biggest hurdle was training teachers - many who were intimidated by the foreign hardware.

"I remember the large IBM PC's we had with the huge ugly tank-like structure and it looked like you could drop it from 1,000 feet and it would still survive," said Joe Di Salvo, principal of Jane Lathrop Stanford Middle School, who went through computer training two decades ago.

Today, Palo Alto teachers and students have a wide array of opportunity to include technology in their education. In fact, there are about three students to every computer districtwide, which beats the county ratio of 4-1. Although students are not required to know computer basics until eighth-grade under federal law, kids in Palo Alto start learning simple computer skills in kindergarten.

As students get older, classes such as video production and journalism provide for real-world experience, while digital lockers and e-homework have students using technology on a day-to-day basis.

To keep teachers up to date, about 70 all-day workshops have been offered this school year for teachers, where they've soaked up information about online curricular resources, as well as presentation and Web page software. Many teachers also have their own Internet sites, where students can find out information about homework and upcoming tests.

"To be trite, it blows me away. I couldn't even have envisioned all these things. It's so pervasive, the use of technology in education. It's not even something that is a thing, it's just a part of every day," said Tuomy, who now works for Secure Content, Inc., which helps school districts keep hackers and viruses out of their networks.

The local district also now widely uses wireless technologies at many of its school sites. Marie Scigliano, director of educational technology, said both high schools, all three middle schools and about half of the elementary schools use wireless systems. Officials say it unlocks students from the desk and provides more freedom for work.

However, that freedom hasn't always been a bonus. In 2003, the district's wireless network was left unsecured, giving outside guest users access to confidential information, including student grades, photos and psychological evaluations.

Scigliano said many of those original systems that provided wireless access were brought into the district by parents who worked at various companies or some who just went to Fry's. Those have been eliminated, she said.

"The systems now are the standard systems we use throughout the district. It's very much standardized now," she added.

The district's difficulties with wireless technology were just a part of the growing pains it experienced.

It also had to overcome problems with finding a reliable e-mail server -- one that would facilitate communication between 1,500 users at the district office and 17 campuses. The district contracted with Mirapoint out of Sunnyvale and hasn't had problems since.

Participants at this month's conference will have an opportunity to visit four schools, including Duveneck and Ohlone elementary schools, Jordan and JLS middle schools, and Gunn and Palo Alto high schools. The tours will showcase various classrooms and how students utilize tech on a daily basis.

For example, visitors who head to Paly will tour the new science facilities equipped with computers integrated in the lab. At Jordan, they'll see students doing Web-based investigations using wireless laptops, and at Ohlone, the students will showcase how they've learned to edit digital photos for the yearbook.

The various breakout sessions will highlight issues such as teaching teachers technology, wireless networks and security, and how to troubleshoot staff tech problems.

One session, entitled, "Growing up Digital in Silicon Valley and Palo Alto Unified," will sum up the purpose of the conference.

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