Computers no longer just for rich suburban schools

Gary Goodell talks about files and floppy disks the way other teen-agers talk about football and Frisbees.

That's because he's worked on school computers for three years. But this high school senior doesn't live in a plush suburb, where most classroom computers are now concentrated.

He lives in Oxford, a small blue-collar, rural town that's an example of what's happening around the country as computers drop their silver-spoon image. Today, many rural communities, as well as inner-city neighborhoods, are hustling to put computer keyboards within reach of their students - as many wealthier schools have already done.

Fueling the push: microcomputer prices, which are now within reach of even many budget-crunched school districts.

In Boston, for example, school officials just bought or leased 185 microcomputers and are building computer labs in 15 schools. Detroit just bought 300; Houston, 400 - with plans to buy some 200 more this school year.

The efforts of rural and small-town schools, while on a more modest scale, are also aimed at bringing instructional computers in as fast as possible.

''There's definitely a sense of trying to catch up,'' says James Weir, a computer science teacher in Central City, Neb. The school system there bought its first microcomputer in 1979, but now has 15 - including two to teach programming to elementary students.

''We're in a position now where computers are finally cheap enough for us,'' says Mr. Weir, who remembers the hesitation of school officials to spend the more than $3,000 on their first microcomputer three years ago. ''We just don't spend money that wildly out here,'' he says. One brand of microcomputer popular for classroom use now costs about $1,700.

According to a yet-unpublished survey by Market Data Retrieval, a Connecticut-based market research firm, nearly 60 percent of US high schools now have microcomputers, compared with 42 percent last year.

At the same time, low-income school districts still lag behind their wealthier counterparts: Of the schools which spend less than $30 per student on instructional materials, only 22 percent have microcomputers, while the machines are in nearly 40 percent of the schools which spend more than $60.

The number of machines within each school is also increasing. The US Department of Education reports the number of computers in public schools tripled between fall 1980 and spring 1982, from 31,000 to 96,000.

Oxford's school system had no computers four years ago. Now it has 30, ranging in size from a large mainframe to microcomputers, and is in the midst of building a second computer-equipped lab at the high school.

''We don't want to spawn a generation of disadvantaged youngsters, whether in computer technology or the basic skills of reading and writing,'' says Oxford school superintendent Francis Driscoll.

Dr. Driscoll, echoing the concern of educators and parents across the nation, says ''computer literacy'' is fast becoming essential for many entry-level jobs. While experts argue over what this new literacy involves, most agree that students should, to some extent, become savvy with the machines.

''If children don't learn computer skills in school, the division between haves and have-nots is going to become deeper than ever before,'' says Bobby Goodson, president of Computer-Using Educators, a California-based national association with over 3,500 members.

Experts split computer literacy into several levels, starting with computer-aided instruction for drilling students in such skills as multiplication tables. Classroom computers are also used as tools, such as in word processing, and to learn programming.

For Oxford senior Gary Goodell, the son of a waitress and a mailman, learning to program computers has opened up career options. He plans to study physics and electronics in college.

But once computers are plugged in, a longer-term question arises over how the machines ought to be used. And, here again, distinctions between rich and poor are a nub of contention among educators and parents.

Wealthy schools tend to use computers to teach advanced skills, such as programming. Inner-city and rural schools are more likely to simply drill students in the three-R's.

''So just because a school has a lot of computers doesn't mean the students are learning how to control them,'' says Arthur Luehrmann, president of Computer Literacy, a California firm that specializes in computer education materials.

Dr. Luehrmann says using computers for remedial work is valid, but shouldn't be the limit of a program. In many cases low-income school districts buy computers with federal funds earmarked for remedial programs.

Another stumbling spot for schools playing catch-up in computer technology is a lack of sufficient planning.

''A very common scenario is for schools to first decide to buy computers, and only then start asking what they're going to do with them,'' says Karen Sheingold, director of the Center for Children and Technology at New York's Bank Street College of Education.

After pouring thousands of dollars into a program, says Ms. Sheingold, ''some schools find out they have the wrong machines or not enough money left to train the teachers.''

In an effort to help schools buy the technology, Congress is considering a bill which would give a tax break to firms that donate new computer equipment to elementary and secondary schools. The law, called the Technology Education Act, was first promoted in Washington by Apple Computer board chairman Steven Jobs. So far, the bill has been approved by the House, while a different version is ready to be acted on in the Senate.

Backers admit that besides helping schools acquire computers, the plan would also give computer companies a potentially profitable toehold in the rapidly growing educational market.

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