Some of Maryland's smaller school systems are speeding down the information superhighway, leaving larger school districts eating their cyberdust.
Despite comparatively smaller budgets, Kent, Queen Anne's and Worcester counties began investing in computers five or more years ago. Now, their students "surf" the Internet, moving via modem through an international network of databases.
"I'm very proud of what we've done in computers in our county," said Robert W. Lathroum, who is in charge of computer technology in Queen Anne's County schools, where each school has a lab. "It hasn't been a hard sell."
Linda Roberts, director of the office of educational technology for the U.S. Department of Education, said usually it's the larger, wealthier school districts that take the lead in investing in classroom computers.
But in some cases, as in Maryland, she said, smaller school districts have moved ahead more quickly because "technology becomes the way to equalize access to information and to broaden the base of curriculum in the smaller school districts."
The larger school systems in Maryland, including Baltimore City and Anne Arundel, Baltimore, Montgomery, and Prince George's counties, are now installing computer labs -- even as trends are changing and computer consultants are recommending computers be placed in individual classrooms for more integrated use in lessons.
But education leaders in the metropolitan Baltimore counties point out that with limited funds, they must begin somewhere, and labs ensure that every student will have at least a few hours of access to computers a week. This, they say, is better than trying to equip all classrooms, which could result in inequities because they are limited in the number of computers they can buy each year.
"It was infuriating to the community that we didn't have computers for all our students," said Lani Seikaly, director for the Department of Educational Media and Technology for Montgomery County schools, about to enter the second year of a six-year buying frenzy.
"There's an increasing disparity among students who do have technology at home and those who don't," she said, adding that schools are the place to "level the playing field" because every home won't have money for a computer.
Generally, the larger school systems, such as Montgomery and Anne Arundel, have been slower to spend money on computers for classrooms, citing the high cost.
Most have relied on PTAs and corporations to supply some of their computers. In some cases, the donated machines make up much as one-third of a school district's inventory.
The result: a hodgepodge ranging from the earliest Apples, Ataris and Commodores to IBM-compatible computers with CD-ROM.
The variety and age of the machines makes it difficult to cruise the Internet, and take advantage of other new technology such as the WorldWideWeb and CD-ROM.
In Carroll County, for example, all but 500 of the school system's 2,600 classroom computers are outdated and cannot be used in the computer network they're trying to build, said William J. Piercy, superintendent of instructional technology.
Kenneth R. Smith, former director of instructional technology for Baltimore City schools, said it's not a "lack of desire" that has kept Maryland's larger school districts from investing as heavily in computers as the smaller subdivisions.
"But there are so many other things you want," said Mr. Smith, now coordinator of technology for Worcester County schools.
"By the time you get down to it, you have to fund a school nurse or a computer," he said. "It's a decision no one wants to make. You need both, but you can only fund one."
Education leaders in the smaller counties say they also faced tough choices, but decided to place a priority on buying computers.
"What are you typing on?" Mr. Lathroum asked, referring to the clickety-clacks he heard during a recent telephone interview. "That's the tool [students] are going to live with. You can teach kids about computers, but you also have to let them use computers as a tool."
Queen Anne's got a head start in 1984 as one of five school districts chosen to participate in a state-funded project to put computers in classrooms.
When the state money dried up, Queen Anne's kept buying and upgrading its computers -- spending $1.5 million over the past five years to provide one computer for every eight students.
In that same period, Worcester County spent $1 million for 900 computers. Now, there's one for every seven students, and they're constantly upgraded. At the opposite end of the computer spectrum, Anne Arundel County has one computer for every 18 students, Baltimore City has one for every 16 students.
To make Worcester's investment go farther, the school system avoided buying name-brand computers such as IBMs or Macintoshes. "We figure we're going to have to replace them in five years whether the equipment is a name brand or not," Mr. Smith said.
Kent County, which has one computer for five students, also was one of the first districts to develop an organized approach to buying computers and using them to teach students, said Gordon Browning, director of pupil services and computer technology for Kent County schools.
The school system's lease-purchase program began in 1989. Since then the school system has spent $1.2 million to put one or more labs in each of its eight schools -- including three labs in the county's one high school.
As part of the program, teachers were given computers to use at home. The teachers paid income tax, about $400 each, on the gifts.
"We knew it was important that teachers become comfortable with the equipment to use it effectively in the classroom," he said. "It has paid off. Our teachers are at the forefront of the technological advances."
That's not the case in other school districts.
Anne Arundel educators have been struggling for two years to get their County Council to commit to spending $35 million over five years to put computer labs in all 117 schools. They've met with minimal success: $500,000 for a pilot this year in four schools and $750,000 to expand the program to all senior high schools next fall.
A program to lend teachers money to buy home computers ended after the school system spent about $1 million; the loans are to be repaid through payroll deduction.
In the meantime, schools are left to struggle on their own with a mishmash of equipment.
What has happened at Jessup Elementary School in Anne Arundel County is typical.
In 1989, the first year of Giant Food Inc.'s "Apples for the Students Plus" program, Jessup parents dutifully saved their grocery receipts to get eight computers for the school.
Knowing the equipment would quickly be outdated because of technological advances, the Jessup parents have devoted the past five years to selling pizza and giving spaghetti dinners to raise money for a bona fide computer lab. The lab was completed this year with the $11,000 they raised and a donation from Wang Laboratories of 40 central processing units.
It's the same in all the metropolitan counties, where Giant Food Inc. officials said they have given away about $37 million worth of school equipment, most of which is computers.
Safeway stores have given $2 million worth of equipment, a spokesman said.
Harford County, for example, gets 30 percent of its computers for schools from corporate or PTA donations.
Carroll County budgeted $67,000 to buy computer equipment this year, but last year parents or grocery store campaigns brought in about five times as much, $350,000 worth.
Only in the past year or two have the larger counties tried to develop a more organized approach to the problem.
Last year, Baltimore County committed $9 million to buy 4,600 computers to double its inventory and provide one computer for every 10.7 students.
Howard County school officials said they plan to spend $5.5 million on computers over the next three years. The first $1.6 million went to replace outdated equipment and buy some new machines.
Carroll County recently announced a plan to spend $1 million a year on computers.
"If you took a teacher from the 1900s and put them in today's classroom, I would imagine he or she would feel quite comfortable. There would be the familiar chalkboard, desks, paper and pencils," Ms. Seikaly said. "And I don't think you can say that about too many businesses."