Five-year-olds just learning to write, teachers brought up on pen and ink and even school board members seeking to handle the crush of paperwork are all huddling over sophisticated keyboards and glowing video screens these days, hunting and pecking their way into the D.C. public schools' new computer age.
Apple IIe computers and related equipment worth about $4,000 apiece have been received or are on order for 10 members of the D.C. Board of Education. The board members said they need the computers to make their offices more efficient and said the expense was justified even in the face of the board's severe budget problems.
"The money that was used came from the school board members' budget, not from instructional programs," said board president David Eaton (At-Large). Noted board member Wanda Washburn (Ward 3): "It'll be the new wave. I'm not ashamed of having it. It will give me a good way of keeping accurate records of what is happening in my schools."
Board member Eugene Kinlow (At-Large), who is running for reelection this fall, is the only board member who did not order a spanking-new Apple. "There are plenty of them around that I can use if I need one," he said. "They're all over the place."
Board vice president Nate Bush (Ward 7) and board member Linda Cropp (Ward 4), both of whom face reelection in November, also are spending a total of $6,407 more from those discretionary board funds to buy 43 Atari 400 computers for elementary schools in their wards.
"If we are serious about computers, we should want our young people to get familiar with them at a young age," said Cropp, who will donate 28 computers to schools in her ward.
Bush, who is giving 15 of the computers to schools in his ward, gave similar reasons, saying the school system does not plan widespread use of computers in its elementary schools until 1985.
The computer mania amoung school board members is only the beginning. In schools throughout the city this fall, kindergarten students will learn to read and write; principals, teachers and school aides will learn to program; and high school students with poor basic skills will try to catch up--all on computers.
"We are trying to intercept the future" through increased use of computers, said Principal Clemmie H. Strayhorn, whose Spingarn High School students work on eight computer terminals loaned by the Control Data Corp. for remedial help in Spingarn's "Fair Break" program and to enrich stronger students. "We just don't have enough of them."
The schools may not have as many computers as officials would like, but it seems just about everyone is getting into the act of providing computers. PTAs and Home and School associations across the city have scraped together funds to buy computers for their schools. Corporations, such as International Business Machines and Xerox, have poured hundreds of thousands of dollars' worth of computers, software programs and instructional help into the school system.
The Post Cereals branch of the General Foods Corp. and Atari Inc. are working with school board members to hold a 10-day "Catch On To Computers Learning Festival" at George Washington University starting Oct. 5. Schools also can receive free computers and software in exchange for collected proof of purchase seals from Post products.
The D.C. school board has passed the area's first computer-literacy graduation requirement, scheduled to take effect in the 1987-88 school year, and teachers are expected to have acquired "a working knowledge of computers and their uses and applications" by the end of their five-year recertification process.
D.C. schools Superintendent Floretta D. McKenzie said the school system's five-year plan for computers in the classroom will fall at least one year behind through the loss of $7 million in funds from this year's budget due to budget cuts ordered by Mayor Marion Barry.
McKenzie said, for example, computer training labs planned for 45 schools using current-year funds would have to be paid for out of next year's schools budget.
In a school district where residents are less affluent than their suburban counterparts, schools frequently represent a student's first chance to work on a computer. Of Carolyn Murray's 44 computer students at Spingarn last year, for example, only one came from a family that owned a personal computer.
"It's critical for the school system to be able to provide that experience, not late, but as early as possible. I have seen statistics that say that 75 percent of all jobs in 1990 will require some interaction with computers," McKenzie said. For a predominantly minority school system, "this is one of the things that really drives us," she said.
D.C. school officials said they agree with several aspects of a recent Carnegie Foundation report on secondary education, but not the section that calls computers "a flashy symbol of school success" that does little to improve education.
"I think they are wrong. I just think they are off base when you look at the utilization and significance of computers in society today," said James Guines, associate superintendent for instruction.
"The computer is like anything else. It can be a useful tool in the improvement of instruction," said Washington Teachers Union President William Simons. "The school system shouldn't--and I don't believe it is--rely on the computer to do the total job of improving instruction."
Starting in October, 15 schools will use 45 computers and equipment loaned by IBM to teach kindergarten students how to read and write using computers, said Thelma Michael, the school system's coordinator for the "writing to read" program that was given to selected first graders last year.
In it, children are taught "phonemes," or basic letter sounds, with a talking computer that shows them how to find the letter for the sound on the key board. From there, the children move a "work journal" where they write the letters and words they have learned on the computer. By the end of the program the children should be able to write short groups of sentences, Michael said.
Students at Spingarn who have never mastered such basic skills and are several years below grade average in scholastic ability by the time they reach high school can try to catch up in the school's "Fair Break" program, said its coordinator, Art Bridges.
At Spingarn, the students are tested to find their operative grade levels and then are sent through a series of instructional programs on computers loaned by the Control Data Corp. The computers keep track of the student's progress and tell teachers how long it took the student to master new levels. The Spingarn program was to have been spread to four other schools this year, but McKenzie said that might not be possible because of the budget cut.
The jury is still out on just how effective computer instruction is in a number of respects. Of the 56 students who took the class in the evening last year, however, 14 students made gains of from 1 to 3.3 years in grade-level equivalents in reading. In math, 18 students progressed from 1 to 4.8 years, according to school records.
For those who regularly attended the program and maintained interest, it worked. Mark Doffett, 17, enrolled in an introductory computer course this fall, said, "It's a lot of fun. I know I'm going to learn a lot."
Xerox has donated $500,000 in computers and equipment to Coolidge High School this fall for a computer information and word processing program designed to prepare students for entry level jobs in computer related fields.
Coolidge principal James Campbell said Howard University officials and former Coolidge graduate Kent Amos helped develop the program. Students who took the program during the summer were given a $100-a-week stipend from Xerox to compensate for possible summer employment, in what has been named Xerox's "Urban Youth Investment Program.
"We hope to carry 200 students in the program this year," Campbell said. "As we move forward, the ability to work with this type of technology is essential for our students."
To prevent a repeat of some situations in which there has been a shortage of sufficiently trained personnel to work with students on computers, teachers, principals, administrators, board members and staff are taking computer-literacy training classes at Takoma Elementary School in Northwest, said Jennelle Leonard, assistant director of the program.
"The course is designed to teach them how to operate a computer, how to integrate a computer into the existing curriculum and how to use a computer in the classroom," Leonard said.
And just in case parents become befuddled when children come home speaking of "bytes," "RAM" and "diskettes," in the way that the "new math" sent fear into the hearts of parents years ago, school officials say help will be on the way in the form of workshops to teach parents how to use computers and how to help their children.