May 25, 2013
TECHNOS QUARTERLY Fall 1993 Vol. 2 No. 3
In Search of Elegant Solutions
By Maisie McAdoo
Access to technology in schools can open doors for students. Whether those doors are opened depends primarily on two things: expectations for students and commitment to a technology program, beginning with funding. Our writer visited two New York City high schools to compare their uses of technology, particularly computers. What she found is a startling contrast in resources and expectations that points up the problems of inequity of access to technology. Walk through the doors of Stuyvesant and Prospect Heights, but be forewarnedif you are searching for elegant solutions, you may be disappointed.
Stuyvesant High School, Manhattan
Avis Hsieh hates her new haircut; she's jammed a baseball cap over her head to hide it. She also has a bad case of senioritis as she nears the end of her senior year at New York's prestigious Stuyvesant High School, the city's highly selective magnet school for math and science students. Between the haircut and the senioritis, Avis is taking only a mild interest in the final project for her Advanced Placement (AP) computer science class: programming Hangman in Turbo Pascal.
This class isn't very difficult for Avis. And if she doesn't get much done this period, she can always continue working on the project at homeshe has an IBM compatible with a hard driveor in the library, where 10 computers are reserved for student use at all times, or here in Room 307, where Mr. Greenfield will let her come in early and work on one of the 35 networked IBMs.
Steven Milman, another of Mr. Greenfield's AP students, has forgotten his password. Stuyvesant students each get one so they can log onto the system from any computer in the school. But Steven prefers to work at home, where he and his father, a computer programmer who brought his family to the United States from the Soviet Union four years ago, have installed C++ Compiler, Turbo Pascal, Windows, dBase II, WordPerfect 5.1, Lotus 1-2-3, and Auto CAD onto their 386SX.
For his final project for Mr. Greenfield, Steven is doing an elevator simulation, programming two cars to stop and start on command. At the moment, he's sketching notes and designs on paper with a pencil; he'll do the programming tonight at home.
David Greenfield lets Avis, Steven, and the 28 other students in Room 307 do whatever they need totalk with each other, talk with him, program their projects, or work on other computer projects. Stuyvesant's 2,721 students are chosen from among the very top students in the city. Many come from immigrant families who are betting everything on their children's education. These kids don't need much supervision or discipline.
Obviously, we teach a subject, says math teacher and computer coordinator Stuart Weinberg. But most of the time, we just get out of their way.
Stuyvesant High School has so many computer nerds that you have to divide them into subcategories. Besides the programming nerds on the third floor, at least one of whom has a software program on the market, there are the computer art nerds on the tenth floor, where the art studio has a color laser jet printer, and the industrial design nerds, who work in one of the three advanced computer-aided design (CAD) labs, one with robotics, that line the fourth-floor hall. And that covers just three of Stuyvesant's 10 floors.
In one CAD lab, students are designing structures that could never be builtan exercise to stretch their minds and sharpen their sense of design. Industrial arts teacher Frank Wright explains: We're not training them for the job market. We're developing creative thought.
How does Stuyvesant's principal feel about all this? He can't stop beaming. Everything these kids touch turns to gold, boasts Abraham Baumel, walking through a hall where students sprawl haphazardly on the new white linoleum floor. The bell rings. Doesn't he think they should get to class? There are no rules here, Mr. Baumel scoffs.
What is here is opportunity. Stuyvesant has just moved into a new $150 million facility on Manhattan's western waterfront that provides students with just about everything they need in computer technology. There are 450 IBMs and Macintoshes all linked by local area networks, with each network tied into one of 13 file servers that spiral along a fiber-optic backbone.
While a billion dollars was cut from the city's school budget between 1989 and 1992, Stuyvesant got almost everything it asked for from the New York City Board of Education. It has 12 science labs, five gyms, an Olympic-size swimming pool, and an 866-seat theater with acoustics so advanced, you can hear conversational speech anywhere in the roomwithout amplification.
The board did scale back the school's computer budget, from $6 million to $3.5 million, but even with the reduced funding, the school has provided 22 of its 65 classrooms with computers. Technicians from IBM are at the school at least twice a week to fine-tune and enhance the system.
The school has Encyclopaedia Britannica and untold amounts of additional research material on CD-ROM. The system includes modems, a fax server, and links to Internet and NYCENET, an on-line city education service. Fifty laser printers are available for student and teacher use. For classrooms that don't have computers, units on movable carts can plug into connectors throughout the building. All can log onto a network.
One key to Stuyvesant's success is the dedication of its students' parents. In a city where most parents never show up for open-school night, Stuyvesant's parent association raises $80,000 to $100,000 a year through its activities.
New Yorkers appear to be of two minds about this school. On one hand, some think it is terribly elite, the students ridiculously indulged while students elsewhere lack desks and textbooks. On the other hand, some feel if there's a Stuyvesant, there's hope. This view holds that at least some kids, the really bright ones, should get everything they need. These kids are among the most extraordinary kids on the planet, principal Baumel explains succinctly.
Mr. Baumel himself has a love affair of sorts with computers. He even grudgingly admires the school's corps of computer hackers, which is legendary. He has three computers in his office and keeps up with new hardware and software developments. And he sees the future opening like a lotus. In the old days, Mr. Baumel says, computers were used for four things: simple review, drafting, word processing, and data processing. Now schools can have multimedia and CD-ROM and hookups to libraries around the world. Stuyvesant is even putting a satellite dish on the roof to capture data for meteorologic computations and communications.
Mr. Baumel believes the only problem with computers is that they can't think like kids. No matter how clever the programmer, he or she can't anticipate the student responses, Mr. Baumel observes, including marvelous wrong answers. The kid is wrong, but it's great!
The Spanish teacher, Juan Mendez, is another computer nut. Today he is using the Stuyvesant network's electronic mail program, Lotus's CC:Mail, to teach Spanish II. He requires students to send him messages in Spanish. If they don't include all the accents, he mails their messages back electronically for correction.
It is June 9th, well into the last month of school. The journalism class has finally published its term project, a magazine called Survival 345: How to Make It, Break It, or Fake It at Stuy. It's selling like hotcakes in the lobby. Hussein Kanji, production editor of Survival, put it together with Quark XPress, a program which he first installed, then taught himself to use. (That was at the same time he was taking Honors AP Calculus, AP Physics, Latin, and Political Theory and auditing AP Economics; academic expectations are very high for Hussein and his fellow students.)
The survival guide tells tales from the dark side of Stuyvesant High. It features articles on student depression, boyfriend rejection, exhaustion from all-night study marathons, cliques, and the prolonged agony of awaiting Ivy League college acceptances.
The stress level is high here, and some students are at the breaking point going into the final stretch. That's why Avis Hsieh has finally decided not to program Hangman. Instead, she'll program a binary tree, which is easier. Anyway, she has already been accepted at Princeton. And Steven Milman isn't skipping lunch today, either. In fact, he's lingering in the lunchroom. The view of the Hudson River and the Statue of Liberty is soothing, and when you're among the best and brightest, you deserve a break.
Prospect Heights High School, Brooklyn
At Prospect Heights, high tech greets you at the door in the form of metal detectors, x-ray scanners, and a central computer linking the security desk with every classroom. Using this system, guards can be dispatched immediately to incidents throughout the building. Ranked the twelfth most violent among New York City's 125 high schools in 1990 by the Board of Education, Prospect Heights rates not only all the security hardware, but also a special full-time security coordinator, a retired police detective.
More high tech awaits a visitor in the principal's office down the hall. Next to Jerry Cioffi's desk is the computer that serves as nerve center for the PINS and PASS school administrators' programthe Principal's Information Notebook and Pupil Administrative Support Services. Here's how it works: A student is marched in between two security guards, who say he was disrupting a class. The principal enters the kid's name into the PINS and PASS system and views his report card (scores of 45 and 0), his attendance record (late at least 11 times in the last month), his class schedule (he wasn't where he was supposed to be), and his biographical information (poor, black, lives with one parent). Enough information to suspend him, which is what the principal does.
For all his toughness, though, Mr. Cioffi is trying as hard as he can to turn this school around. He's been here six years, longer than the previous 10 principals, and the school has become safer and improved academically under his leadership. For him, the technology is part of the strategy. We probably use computers here more than most places, he says, referring to New York's other high schools. The security hardware has kept most weapons out of Prospect Heights, though they're an everyday fact of life in the surrounding neighborhood of Crown Heights.
TLC vs. Machines
Aside from the computers that are used for security functions, Prospect Heights has 150 or so computers to address the needs of a high school population that the Board of Education never could have planned for. Seventy-five percent of Prospect Heights' 2,006 students are Caribbean immigrants, many of whom arrived in New York City only in the past year or two. Some had no formal schooling; 80 percent require remediation. In the United States, they shoulder adult responsibilities, some raising brothers and sisters or their own children, many working nights. They need literacy training, job preparation, flexible hours, and some way of recovering their self-esteem. Prospect Heights' technology does those things quite well.
It's possible we make better use of our computers for our needs than Stuyvesant makes of theirs. Their kids will succeed no matter what, Mr. Cioffi says, noting the high expectations and extensive support that surround Stuyvesant students.
Unlike Stuyvesant's kids, who are all expected to go to college and graduate school, Prospect Heights' kids hope to earn a diploma and get a job. The Business Academy, which teaches mostly typing and ledger keeping, has three computer rooms on the fourth floor. Computer rooms for special education, literacy training, and remediation are on the second and third floors. Mr. Cioffi plans a computer language lab as part of a forthcoming modernization of the 1924 school building, and he's upgrading the existing Plato room, used for GED preparation.
Some Prospect Heights teachers are against using computers. Remediation teacher Carol Bowman believes the students are so deprived that their first need is basic human interaction. School librarian Norman Ringle took all the computers out of the library this year. He says the students are missing a lot in their home life, and I think mechanization is taking even more away from them.
Mr. Cioffi understands this attitude, but he wants computers in the school, for a lot of reasons. These kids aren't babies; they need something that makes them feel advanced, not remedial, he explains. This program is part of the solution.
In addition, Mr. Cioffi believes that a computer can sometimes compensate for negative learning experiences. The computer never gets tired of repeating something. It never gets angry or upset, and it even plays nice music for you when you get a right answer, he observes.
Trial and Error
Neal Cameron, a 16-year-old Jamaican, came to the United States a year ago and to Prospect Heights just six months ago. He speaks so softly that it's hard to hear him. Some early trauma is written on his face. He's neatly dressed in colorful sweat pants and nylon jacket. Like most American high school boys, he wears big running shoes with laces half tied and sports a fade haircut. But Neal has neither a computer nor a typewriter at home, his mother is away all week, and what he needs to do is learn to read.
That's what he's doing in Isabelle DiGiacomo's resource remediation class every morning at 9:00. He works on an IBM-based interactive videodisc program called PALS, Principles of the Alphabet Literacy System. PALS, at more than $100,000, is the single most expensive piece of technology in the school.
Neal does exercises in vocabulary and phonics, then views the story of wise King Alpha and brave Queen Bet, which is told in pictures, voice, and text. He is asked to copy the words, complete sentences, and answer questions; his progress is electronically praised at every step.
Neal works steadily, carefully, through the story. He rarely looks up. He never jokes around. At the end, he writes his own summary of the story, in which the good king and queen triumph over the evil Duke Haman by learning written language. In conclusion he writes: And that his how Wise King Alfa came over Evil Duke Haman bad works and was stell ruler of UR. His summary is a triumph for a beginning reader, though it has all the hallmarks of adult illiteracy: comprehension and recall are excellent, but he writes in incomplete sentences and uses random capitalization, spacing, and verb tenses.
Ms. D, as her students call her, lets Neal know he has done well. He doesn't smile but listens warily. She corrects the summary and gives it to him to revise, and he dives back into it. Maybe, just maybe, with Ms. D pulling for him, he won't be dumped into special ed, which in New York City is tantamount to a stiff sentence for boys like Neal. I'm a big believer in computer ed, says Ms. D, whose 12 other resource remediation students are also working at computer reading programs.
Mr. Cioffi would like to put computers in every classroom, instead of having the computer lab arrangement. In this he is in agreement with Abe Baumel and many other school principals. They feel that course work should take place on computers rather than having computers taught as a separate subject. The idea of a laboratory is not good, Mr. Cioffi says. The move now is to take them out of the computer rooms and put them in the classrooms. You only need four or five per room.
In Room 407, Mr. Jean Laventure's social studies classroom, there are three Macintosh LCsa start on Mr. Cioffi's vision. But one computer and the printer have been broken since March, and now in June officials at the Board of Education still don't know when the repairs will be done. The second computer is missing a part, and the projection screen for it is broken. Ernst Pierre works on the third computer, writing a script for his church play, a story in Creole about immigrant life in New York City.
Ernst is 20 years old, too old for high school; but when he came from Haiti two and a half years ago after his mother died, he was placed in ninth grade. Now he is ready to graduate. Ernst dresses in a silk shirt and tailored trousers, speaks French as well as Creole and English, and has polished manners. There is little Prospect Heights can offer him anymore, and he spends a lot of his time in Mr. Laventure's classroom, mostly because the computer is there.
Mr. Laventure taught Ernst how to use the Macintosh after first teaching himself from a manual. The Board of Education offers teachers brief training sessions in computer use, but neither Ms. DiGiacomo nor Mr. Laventure found that training very helpful. IBM and Apple offer workshops, but they are too limited. The teachers have managed to figure out the school computers for themselves.
Ernst is quick with the mouse and fascinated by the computer, even though it keeps thwarting him because it has insufficient memory. The Macintosh in Room 407 has only two megabytes of RAM and really needs four to run the social studies program Point of View, which Ernst is working on.
Ernst wants to go into computer programming. He has been accepted at Hunter College, and he has the smarts. Like most young people, he is not afraid of computers or other technologies. But what he doesn't have is the sense of how a computer reasons, how it works. This can be taught. Ernst would learn it quickly. But at Prospect Heights, advanced computer is not an option. So he pushes a lot of buttons but doesn't find the elegant solutions. He is learning by trial and error.
Still, the machine functions fine as a word processor, and Ernst has completed his play. It is about Johnny and Sandra, who flee Haiti for New York. Their aunt and uncle want them to go to work, but they want to study, pleading to be allowed to learn to read. Finally they win their argument, that they will not break out of the cycle of poverty until they get schooling. The way of school is the way of progress and life, says the play's concluding maxim. For Ernst and other Haitians who've escaped economic and political terror, it is also the only hope.
To Have and Have Not
The New York City Board of Education has no program to computerize its high schools; any funds spent on technology in city high schools come from federal education grants or from the Municipal Assistance Corporation, a private agency. And the city's ongoing fiscal crisis means there won't be any new programs soon.
Many schools, including Stuyvesant and Prospect Heights, acquire computer hardware and software through private grants or with aid from their parent associations. Others apportion discretionary funds to computers. And there lie the roots of a terrible inequity of access to computers and other technology in the city schools. Schools that are adept at grant writing, those whose parent populations are active in the school, those that are political showcases for the city, get computer networks. Those who don't have grant-writing staffs, whose parents work nights and can't be involved, get by with minimal technology.
A 1992 report* by city comptroller Elizabeth Holtzman found that New York City public school students had less access to computers than other students in the state and that schools with high concentrations (over 60 percent) of black and Hispanic students had far more students per computer than schools with fewer minorities. And that's just the beginning of the story.
(* See Inviting Change: Computers in New York City Schools, published by the City Comptroller's Office.)
A school such as Stuyvesanta high-profile magnet school with 51 percent Asian studentsand one such as Prospect Heightsa zoned school of one of New York City's poorest and politically weakest neighborhoods, with a 100 percent black populationhave completely different relationships to computers, and thus to the future. Stuyvesant embodies technology's most exciting potential, encouraging its students to expand the frontiers of knowledge. Prospect Heights uses computers to try to hold back the floodwaters of disaster. Yet students at both schools take to the computers quickly and easily. The painful truth is that the future is limited for students at one school, while the possibilities are dazzling at the other. And there are no elegant solutions to that problem.
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