Eight a.m., and the first school bus unloads. With 30 minutes before classes begin, half the fifth-and-sixth-graders run past the playground of atkinson Middle School and pile up at the entrance to the computer room.
Twenty of the 60 computer terminals are already occupied by students whose parents dropped them of the earlier to do extra work on their English and math.
The scene is similar from 7:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. in the five elementary schools, one junior high, and one senior high in the Freeport School District, on Long Island.
The district owns 300 computer terminals for its 8,000 students, making it one of the largest users of computer-assisted instruction (CAI) in the United States.
Each terminal has a typewriter keyboard. The newest models resemble the video terminals at airport reservation desks, where numbers and words appear on TV-like screens above the key boards.
Since the introduction of computers in America's schools, their use as a learning tool has had mixed results. Experts say too many places expected too much of the machines too quickly.
"They thought there would be a revolution in three days," says Joseph Holbrook, district director of mathematics and the person most responsible for computers at Freeport. they expected computers "to replace teachers, instead of freeing teachers from tedium, so they could really teach."
Freeport's use of computers has been called "a clear success." Statewide test results over a 10-year period show sixth-grade math scores in Freeport going from 42 percent below average in New York State to only 7 percent below average. Similar scores hold true for reading.
When the program began in 1972, the first terminals were set aside for students in need of remedial work in math and English. They were scheduled for at least 2 1/2 hours of lab work per week. As terminals were added, all elementary and junior high students joined the program.
The computer is programmed with the most up-to-date curriculum. Both teachers and paraprofessionals aides help students.
"CAI gives teachers a more workable means of assessing the students' abilities, providing practice and work, and reporting on what is learned," Mr. Holbrook explains.
Program accurately assess student ability and specify this ability by grade level to the nearest month, through a half-hour test.
A math test is so precise in measuring student skills that it is possible to say, "Strong in decimals, weak in quotients, average in problem solving," instead of merely indicating the student's grade level. Teachers obtain valuable academic information on new students the day they arrive.
For example, if a student gives the wrong math answer, the computer automatically asks another question with the same degree of difficulty. If it is not answered correctly, the computer poses a question slightly less difficult.
If a question is answered correctly, the reverse occurs: The computer poses increasingly difficult questions.By the end of a session on the terminal, the student's exact achievement level is known.
To improve skills, each lesson includes a mix of 25 percent review, 50 percent present work, and 25 percent new skills.
Work progresses at the student's speed. The gifted student isn't held back; the slow learner isn't neglected.
As each unit is satisfactory completed, reviewed, and tested, the student advances until the curriculum for a given grade is mastered. Students call this "topping out." They receive recognition, and competition is keen.
Average and above-average children are assigned 40 minutes a week, but so many use the terminals outside regular school hours that the average for each elementary child is closer to 1 1/2 hours a week.
Target children -- those with learning problems -- get priority attention. They spend about 2 1/2 hours a week at the terminals doing drill and practice exercises to supplement classroom instruction.
Parents of children with special needs say they are "so thankful" for CAI. The computer never lose patience or singles out one child from the group. Coordination is easier for the handicapped to master on a keyboard than turning pages or writing with pencil and paper.
There are specific programs for bilingual students. Race is no problem to the computer, Mr. Holbrook says, because the computer is "colorblind."
Once a week a printout of each student's progress is made for the teacher. It details the amount of time a student has worked on the terminal, the number of attempts made on problems, the number of correct entries, and the level achieved.
Any teacher, parent, counselor, administrator, or student may request a progress report at any time.
Steve Pascual, an elementary teacher, says that once teachers find out "computers don't get in the way of kids' learning," acceptance is assured. "When the kids give up lunch to work in the computer room, you know you've got them," he says.
Absenteeism, a nemesis in a high-turnover district, becomes much more manageable for the teacher, because extra makeup work can be done on the terminals on present programs. It cost $250,000 each year for three years to get the districtwide system started. Most of it was paid from federal school desegregation grants, because Freeport is 40 percent black. The operating cost of the equipment, plus salaries of paraprofessionals -- around $500 a year per terminal -- is borne by the district and amounts to about 1.5 percent of its $22 million annual budget.
"The computers are definitely cost-effective," Mr. Holbrook says. "If you spend $20,000 or more for a remedial teacher -- we have those and we need them -- you're talking about somebody who handles maybe 50 kids. With the computers, you're handling 8,000 kids."