Kathleen Kennedy Townsend shunned the microphone and stepped in front of the lectern.
Although Maryland's lieutenant governor was about to talk about the importance of technology, she didn't need any to get the message to about four dozen eager audience members Friday in New Carrollton.
"Working on the Internet is fun, right?" Townsend began.
"Yes!" came the reply in unison.
"Well, I think preparing for the future without the Internet is like playing basketball without a hoop," Townsend said.
This might have had a whiff of a television photo-op--and, sure enough, the cameras were on hand--but this was no ordinary political stump speech. This was a talk with students at Robert Frost Elementary about the importance of using the Internet in schools to help students learn.
Townsend and county, school and business officials from Prince George's gathered to kick off Net Weekend, part of Gov. Parris N. Glendening's (D) push to wire all state schools for the Internet.
Townsend (D) presented the school system with $107,500 to help fund the upgrading of wiring throughout the county, and she handed a smaller check of $2,500 to Robert Frost Principal Sandra C. Gillette.
Then Townsend climbed up a red ladder in the school's second-floor computer lab and attached a wire to another in the ceiling, officially connecting the building to the Internet.
For Gillette, it was the culmination of an ambitious plan to upgrade the school's technology. Over the summer, she received 70 free computers from the U.S. Census Bureau as part of a grant, and officials from that organization helped set up the machines and train staff members to use them.
"I thought when I applied [for the grant] that in six months we'd get two or three computers. We only requested 20, but much to my surprise we got 70," Gillette marveled.
Now the school has 15 computers in the lab and another 10 in the media center, along with others in classrooms throughout the building.
Alberta Paul, who was hired by Superintendent Iris T. Metts to be the school system's chief information officer, said all of the county's 185 schools and its administrative buildings will be fully wired and connected to the Internet by 2003. About 20 percent of the schools now are wired to state standards, officials said, though many more have access to the Internet.
Paul also announced that she will establish computer training centers at five schools in different regions of the county to allow teachers, principals, administrators and parents to become tech-savvy.
"We're going to use this money wisely," Paul told Townsend. "It's critical parents and staff understand how to use the Internet."
As is often the case with technology, many of the young folks on hand said they already are up to speed on the Internet.
"I clicked on different sections of the WWF site," boasted fifth-grader Howard Dodson, 10, referring to the World Wrestling Federation. "I clicked on different pictures, and they showed me how to do the [wrestling] moves."
Classmate Janelle Waugh, 10, said she uses the Internet to "look for comics and learn to draw things."
Alas, Janelle was stumped when she tried to construct her own Web page. "It was too complicated," she said with a frown.
Townsend encouraged them to keep trying to do as much as they can on the Internet, though she noted that there are dangers that come with it, and she passed out a state pamphlet that gave tips for keeping children safe in cyberspace.
"Being Web-savvy is a prerequisite in the new economy," she said. "Thirty years ago, you learned reading, writing and math. Now you need to learn the Internet, too."
State Panel to Talk Money
Money for the Prince George's school system continues to be a hot topic, and it will get hotter today when a state-appointed oversight panel delivers its progress report to state lawmakers in Annapolis.
That panel, created last year by state legislators to monitor school improvement efforts in Prince George's, said recently that it will recommend that legislators release $8 million in funds to the school system. Metts has delivered an acceptable plan to implement the majority of recommendations contained in an independent audit of the system last year, the panel said.
The panel also gave good reviews to Metts for streamlining the central administration. She has eliminated about 130 positions. However, she said last week that the $5 million she expected to save will not be available this year because a state law mandates that employees must receive their full salary for a year, even if they are moved to another, lower-paying position.
Metts has said that if she gets the $8 million, she will use some of it to fund a new in-school suspension program in each of the county's 46 middle and high schools.