Baltimore County schools are set to receive 6,000 new computers by Nov. 1 - a high-tech delivery worth $11 million that officials say will establish a ratio of one computer for every five students, and secure the county's lead in the state's education technology race.
"We are the leader," Deputy Superintendent Christine M. Johns said yesterday. "We're being very aggressive."
Statewide, there is a push for all school systems to reach the 5-to-1 ratio. State Superintendent of Schools Nancy S. Grasmick expects systems to reach that mark by 2003. Last year, a statewide survey of classroom technology found that most schools have room to improve.
At that time, the Baltimore County student-computer ratio was 9-1; Baltimore City, 12-1; Howard County, 9-1; Anne Arundel, 9-1; Carroll, 8-1; Harford, 8-1; Prince George's, 11-1; and Montgomery, 6-1.
In Baltimore County, the technology gap between some schools is considerable.
While Eastern Technical High School's classrooms nearly burst at the seams with iMacs and PCs (the school has a 2-to-1 ratio, according to Principal Robert J. Kemmery) Cockeysville Middle School needs 114 computers to outfit a new lab and meet pupils' Internet needs.
"Cockeysville was already moving in that direction, but [Superintendent Joe A. Hairston's] technology plan just turned a five-year plan into a three-year plan," said Cockeysville Principal Philip W. Taylor. "We're very excited."
Another piece of Hairston's directive is to outfit classrooms, school offices and administrative departments with PCs that speak the same computer language.
As it is, the school system's mix of computer hardware and software creates a real challenge to educators who exchange student data such as test scores to set learning standards.
Recalling his days as a math teacher and department chairman, Mark Beytin, president of the Teachers Association of Baltimore County, said he spent "tens of hours" at the start of every school year trying to figure out which students had yet to pass the state functional math exam.
"I would have to look through list after list," he said. "With this new system, it will all be there with the touch of a key."
Hairston, who set up a similar computing network in Clayton County, Ga., is convinced that a technologically proficient school system - from administrator to students - is a smarter system. He's made technology a top priority.
Board of Education members agree wholeheartedly.
"When you look out into the work field, it is extremely important for any individual to have computer skills," said school board President Donald L. Arnold. "Whether you are a plumber or a mechanic, a mathematician or a parent, such knowledge becomes extremely important."
Although hundreds of books, essays and dissertations have contested the use of computers in the classroom because they can be misused by teachers, Baltimore County school officials say that won't happen in their district.
"These computers will not replace the teacher," said Taylor, who plans to teach teachers how to use computers to supplement curriculum. "The teacher is still the most important component."
Still, some are dragging their heels, including administrators, teachers and office clerks who worry that their computers, many of them easy-to-use Macintosh models, will disappear overnight.
But Johns and other administrators - including Greg Barlow, who is heading the technology switch for the school system, and Mary Jacqe Marchione, who will oversee computer training for employees - promise that no computers will be moved from schools in the first phase of the project.
That will come later - as early as December or as late as June - so that employees will have time to complete training courses that will teach them how to use the new machines, including computers by Gateway, Dell, Hewlett Packard and Compaq.
Johns cautions that the arrival of 6,000 new computers doesn't mean that the current machines will be trashed. Most of the Macs will find homes at elementary schools, where pupils can use them for simple math and reading tutorials. Secondary school students will use the new computers to prepare for careers in industry, business and science.
The school system's technology push has sparked other needs - including a rush for fiber-optic wiring at many schools. Still, Johns said the entire school system will be wired for high-tech uses by 2002 - a year earlier than previously planned.
Schools that will receive a large number of computers include Pine Grove Middle, 144; Pikesville High School, 139; Old Court Middle, 129; Dundalk High School, 123; Cockeysville Middle, 114; General John Stricker Middle, 100; Arbutus Middle School, 93; and Stemmers Run Middle School, 90.