It's no secret that businesses are dissatisfied with U.S. schools. With math and science achievement still lagging behind that in other countries, at a time when technology permeates Old Economy businesses as well as new, U.S. education isn't adequately preparing kids for the modern workplace. The good news is that, with the help of businesses, some innovative schools are forging new pathways toward an education system that serves everyone, on both sides of the so-called "digital divide." Over the next two issues, American Way takes a look at these efforts - and highlights ways you can help, through your business and at home, with your own children.
On the campus of the University of Chicago is a massive Henry Moore sculpture, a bronze monument to Enrico Fermi and the first nuclear fission he engineered in a laboratory under the football stadium's bleachers. If you stand facing the monument, through its open curves you can see the site where the nuclear age was born, and all around you would be the libraries, research labs, and classrooms where some of the best minds in the world do their thinking, and in the tradition of Fermi, create new technology for a new age.
A few blocks away at Wadsworth Elementary School, a public el-ementary school, are libraries, labs, and classrooms. But here, teachers are struggling to learn the most basic of computer operations. They meet during and after school for tutorials.
"When I first came in here, I didn't even know how to turn a computer on," says librarian Dolores McConnell.
And McConnell is one of the lucky ones. Her school, along with 28 others, has been adopted by the University of Chicago through a venture called the Chicago Public Schools-University of Chicago Internet Project, or CUIP, the brainchild of university astronomy professor Don York, who believes all kids should have access to technology at school. Wadsworth and its brethren in the poor neighborhoods near the university have grant money from the federal government; they have corporate donors who give their slightly outmoded computers up for refurbishment and use in the classroom. The Chicago Public Schools spent on average more than $500,000 per school to upgrade their 1930s-vintage electrical systems to support modern computer networks. CUIP sends its staff to each school several times a week to coach teachers, often one-on-one, on their new computers.
Yet even for these smartest of people, armed with somewhat adequate funds and a lot of good intentions, it's a struggle. They struggle to persuade principals that the Internet and related technology can help kids learn, yes, but also can help administrators communicate with teachers and parents via e-mail, and automate lesson plans. They struggle to convince teachers that it's worth their time after school to learn how to turn on a computer, and then, how to use it.