Maryland public school students are much more likely to have access to high-speed computers and the Internet in their classrooms than they were five years ago, but wide variances in technology still exist between individual schools and counties, according to a report released yesterday.

The number of students per high- or mid-speed computer in Maryland has improved from 12 to 1 in 1995 to 8 to 1, the report by the Maryland Business Roundtable for Education says. And the percentage of classrooms connected to the Internet is 58 percent, up from 23 percent statewide in 1997.

However, some counties are doing much better than others. For instance, Montgomery County offers a high- or mid-speed computer for every six students; Prince George's County offers one for every 11 students and is tied with Baltimore City for the worst ratio in the state.

"It's extremely important for the county to catch up," said Prince George's Board of Education Vice Chairman Angela Como (Laurel). "It's the trend for the future. It's a necessary tool. . . . We can't neglect the students. We have to be utilizing technology in every way possible."

June Streckfus, executive director of the Maryland Business Roundtable, said the study confirmed that Maryland is no different from the rest of the country when it comes to a growing "digital divide." Poorer schools often provide less access for children who also do not have computers in their homes, Streckfus said.

"It's the difference between the technology haves and have-nots," Streckfus said. "We know from the business side we need to prepare students for a highly technology-driven economy. Those who do not have the [computer] skills are marginalized to low-wage jobs, a sector that is rapidly shrinking, not growing."

Montgomery school board member Mona M. Signor (Rockville-Potomac) said the county is trying to install top-grade computers in every school that does not have them. But Signor pointed out that upgrading technology is an issue that will not end once the equipment is installed. Rapidly changing software continually must be updated, and instructing teachers on how to incorporate the new technology into their lessons remains an issue.

"The schools that were the first to receive technology, now we must deal with their technology becoming outdated," she said.

The report found that within school districts, technology varied greatly at different schools. At District Heights Elementary in Prince George's, for example, the ratio of students to high- or mid-speed computers is 66 to 1. But at Adelphi Elementary, the ratio is 5 to 1. High-speed is defined as the equivalent of a Pentium processor or faster, while mid-speed is the equivalent of a 486 processor.

"We should insist that all schools have comparable systems," said Prince George's Board of Education Chairman James E. Henderson (Seabrook). "It's unfair for some students, who attend a school simply because they may have parents who are more affluent, to have more access to the better stuff than children in less affluent areas."

Prince George's School Superintendent Iris T. Metts has offered a plan to lower the ratio of students to top-grade computers to 5 to 1 within five years, which would meet the state's target goal. But the plan is costly; she is asking the county for $8 million in emergency funds this spring to upgrade the central office data systems and has requested a $17 million boost in technology funds for next school year.

"With the [$1 billion] surplus in the state's budget, now is the appropriate time to seek additional funding" for technology, Metts said through a spokeswoman. "Recent conversations with elected officials indicated a willingness to support us with the effort."

Streckfus said communities with more active parent support organizations and businesses that donate computers have an advantage. She said she hopes parents and politicians will take note of the study and push for more funding for technology in the schools, particularly those buildings that are not wired for high-speed Internet connections and have old computers.

"We have to make sure that the dollars be distributed equitably, with state and federal funding giving priority to low-income communities," Streckfus said.

The report can be found on the Web site www.mbrt.org or accessed directly at http://msde.aws.com.

Computer, Internet Access

The Maryland State Department of Education and the Maryland Business Roundtable for Education surveyed the level of access that students in the state's 24 public school districts have to computers and the Internet. Here are some of the results for the Washington area counties:

County Student-to- Classrooms with at Classrooms with

computer least one computer Internet

ratio* available for access**

student use

Calvert 7 to 1 68% 77%

Charles 7 to 1 68 77%

Anne Arundel 9 to 1 47 45%

Howard 9 to 1 68 54%

Montgomery 6 to 1 93 91%

Prince George's 11 to 1 57 47%

St. Mary's 6 to 1 57 76%

Maryland 8 to 1 68% 58%

average

Maryland 5 to 1 100% 100%

target

*Computers that have 486 processors or 68040 processors or higher.

**Includes access for teachers only

SOURCES: Maryland State Department of Education; Maryland Business Roundtable for Education