On March 9, if all goes according to plan, California's schools will graduate into the next century.
The idea is NetDay '96 and the plan is for thousands of private volunteers to go into 12,000 Golden State public and private schools and wire them for access to the Internet, the global computer network that is being dubbed the communication mode of the next century.
The Internet ''is building a new reading and writing environment.... It is revolutionizing the world, and we can't pass up the opportunity to let our kids be comfortable in it,'' contends John Gage, chief scientist at Sun Microsystems Inc. and architect of NetDay '96.
The concept is simple, Gage says: Get the schools ready (wire a minimum of seven rooms in each school with the necessary hi-fidelity phone wire) and the rest, computers, printers, etc., will follow.
Gage cooked up NetDay as an antidote to what he viewed as endless talk about the need to get technology into the nation's schools. He was attending meetings on the topic in Washington last spring, when he pulled out his laptop and wrote up the single page idea - just for fun, he says. The memo got passed around without any disclaimer, and before Gage knew it, the memo made its way as fact to President Clinton.
Both the president and Vice President Al Gore liked the idea, and NetDay '96 was officially launched Sept. 21 when Clinton and Gore publicly endorsed it on a visit to the San Francisco Exploratorium.
Although getting presidential approval is no small feat, the next challenge looms even larger: how to organize, coordinate and execute the day itself.
Easy, says Gage. Use the very system we're trying to get the kids on. ''The Net is not hierarchical. It's a web of communication and knowledge,'' and anyone can reach everyone they want in a second, at no cost. ''It's the first organizing event like this. We have no office, nothing. Everything we're doing to organize NetDay is on the Net.''
NetDay's page on the World Wide Web, the Internet's graphic side, is a snazzy affair with a map of the state's schools, a system of dots to show how much help each school still needs (red indicates a school still needs everything, yellow means it has some volunteers, and green says ''all set''), as well as a place to sign up or offer materials.
And all of this costs next to nothing, points out co-planner Michael Kaufman, director of information technology at KQED, a public television station in San Francisco. He came up with a similar idea several years ago and estimated the cost at $1 billion with years of planning. That was without extensive use of private volunteers and the communication advantage of the Internet. NetDay '96 will not bring new computers into the schools - only wires to connect the school's existing or future computers to the Internet.
Kaufman and Gage figure each school will need at least ten volunteers: one ''techie,'' who can create the wiring plan (in conjunction with school officials), as well as physically install and test the wires and nine others to help out - and bring doughnuts.
Each school will have to buy its own materials kit, which sponsor companies are providing at cost, ranging from $350 to $500. A few statewide companies, including MCI and PacTel are offering incentives (such as free Internet and ISDN access for the first year), but Gage and Kaufman are counting on private citizens and local contractors in each community to provide personnel and money.
Roger Mendoza, at Quest Systems a computer systems company in Sacramento, Calif., has been working on getting technology into local schools for several years and has offered a team of 30 Quest staffers to help out on NetDay. ''We find that when we put our generosity out there, it comes back to us tenfold,'' he observes.
Although Mr. Mendoza says he has some reservations about the number of skilled people available to help out across the state (he estimates there are only enough to outfit 2,000 to 3,000 schools in one day), he likes the idea. ''At least it's starting something,'' he says. ''It's got people's interest alive instead of dormant.''
The Kester Magnet School in Van Nuys is typical of the learning arc most schools are going through about NetDay. Kester's principal, Petra Montante, and NetDay coordinator, fifth grade teacher Jan Rall, recently attended one of six regional NetDay informational meetings sponsored by the State Board of Education and say they are just getting up to speed on what NetDay can do for the school.
''Technology is part of the future, and this is a wonderful way for us to join the educational community in going there,'' Mrs. Montante smiles. At the same time Montante and Ms. Rall acknowledge that they are just beginning to think about the nuts and bolts of NetDay - who will carry it out, which rooms to wire, and will NetDay fit in with a longer term wish for a full computer wing.
Support for NetDay is running high among those who are aware of it (the Web Page shows more than 7,000 schools getting involved), although some California schools are opting out of NetDay because they already have their own technology plans. The main obstacle to getting the state completely wired by March 9 seems to be awareness. Carole Teach, manager of K-12 network planning at the California Department of Education says they are doing everything they can to get the word out.
And she has another larger goal for NetDay, which she shares with Gage and Kaufman. ''We are hoping for the kind of momentum that will bring the next stage of equipment into the schools,'' says Ms. Teach.
In other words, they're hoping communities and private industries will learn about their schools and continue supporting them after the event is over. After all, Gage asks, where are the next Bill Gates (chairman of Microsoft Corp.) and Steve Jobs (founder of Apple Computer) going to come from?
* For more information on NetDay, point your Web browser to http://www.netday96.com.