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Schools pulling the plug on macs

THE BALTIMORE SUN

For nearly two decades, Anne Peach has taught graphic arts at a Catonsville high school using Apple Macintosh computers, knowing her students would use that system in the working world.

But the Apple logo has given way to the waving Windows icon in Baltimore County schools' graphic design and multimedia computer labs, and Peach is furious.

"We have," she said, "potentially thousands of students who are potentially not going to be prepared after this year's class."

Most of the county school system's computers are PCs running Microsoft Windows software, but not in the labs for the graphic and multimedia programs, until now. School system leaders say the move makes sense because it will make it easier to provide technical support and because graphic design software is available for both platforms.

Still, some say future graphic artists should learn using Macs.

"If people are specifically interested in a career in graphic arts, to not be exposed at all to the Mac is probably a disadvantage," said Kevin Keane, president of IAPHC, an international graphic professionals' network.

During spring break, the school system converted Mac computer labs at the Western School of Technology and Environmental Science, where Peach teaches. By fall, 11 programs at 10 schools will move to PCs, at a cost of more than $1 million, said Rhonda Hoyman, supervisor of technical programs in the Office of Career and Technology Education.

Some industry partners consulted by the school system use Macs and others use PCs, she said. "The students are getting many of the same programs. It's just they're done on a different platform," she said.

Although the first encounter some children may have had with a computer was an Apple IIe in their classroom, newspaper accounts in recent years describe how PCs are becoming more prevalent in schools.

Superintendent Joe A. Hairston initiated this kind of change soon after he arrived in Baltimore County schools in 2000. Last year, he was recognized several times for his technology achievements.

Students and staff can share information efficiently if everyone uses compatible equipment. "All of this can happen only if we're all on the same operating platform," said schools spokeswoman Kara Calder.

"There wasn't intended, as part of the plan, any long-term or permanent exceptions to that," she said. "It's simply prohibitive to support two separate computer systems within the school system.

Hoyman said they considered keeping a few Macs in each classroom but abandoned the plan because of the cost. "I'm not going to say some teachers still wouldn't prefer to have Macs or have a dual platform," she said. She said the differences had more to do with personal preference, however, comparing the differences to cooking with gas versus electricity.

With the move, the 11 programs will use the same set of about 14 software titles. In the past, teachers chose from among 30 programs depending on their expertise, Hoyman said. She said teachers will be trained to use the programs. They'll also be paid this summer to revamp their assignments for the new equipment, she said.

The debate over Macs versus Windows reaches levels of almost religious fervor, with bloggers and Web sites monitoring every statement made for or against either operating system. Most agree that graphics firms chiefly use Macs because their software was originally designed for that operating system.

Until recently, up to 90 percent of most printing plants used Macs, said Keane, the president of the graphic professionals' network. It's now easier to work in either platform, but he estimated about three-quarters of businesses still use Macs.

But with the rest of the world mostly using PCs, students may not have many opportunities other than a graphic design classroom to learn to use Macs. "That's not to say it can't be overcome," said Keane, a Mac user himself.

"The operating system may be a little different, but the software is pretty much the same," said Nick Callas, the president of the Graphic Arts Professionals of Baltimore and graphic communications teacher at Overlea High School. He agreed, however, that because PCs are more prevalent, it might help students to be exposed to Macs in the classroom.

He's used Macs for most of the 24 years he has worked as a graphic communications teacher but feels confident that "the students are going to help me make the transition," he said.

"Technology is not intimidating to the young," the teacher said. "They're just so fast. It's hard for an adult to see that."

School systems around Baltimore vary on the matter. Anne Arundel and Carroll counties use only Macs for these programs. Harford uses only PCs, which was an "economic decision," said county schools spokesman Donald R. Morrison.

Howard County uses both Macs and PCs, said Richard Weisenhoff, the county's coordinator for career and technology education. They edit video using Macs but teach a 3-D graphics program on PCs, he said.

The Community College of Baltimore County has both Macs and PCs in their graphics and multimedia programs, said college spokeswoman Hope Hall Davis. However, the college program's leaders said that "if they don't know the Mac operating system, they'll probably be at a disadvantage," she said.

Jill Schuchart, a student in Eastern Technical High School's multimedia communications program, said she and other classmates were disappointed when they heard the news. They remembered how the PCs always crashed at the multimedia program at Parkville Middle.

She recalls thinking, "Oh, great. It's going to be like in eighth grade again, when we couldn't work on our projects."

Elizabeth Goodman, an Eastern student, said she has a PC at home. "I'm kind of wondering if it's going to make a difference," she said.

Peach, a teacher for 36 years, she said she taught herself everything she knows about computers. She now does some computer consulting and runs a small publishing company. Since December, she's sent letters to elected officials and education leaders about her concerns.

Students can apply for internships and work-study assignments at graphic design firms through the program, but Peach said some potential employers have walked out after learning that students wouldn't be using Macs.

"I'm worried about me training the kids to get the jobs I know they can get - but only if they can get the right equipment," Peach said.

liz.kay@baltsun.com

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