6th-graders' computers branch out

6th-graders' computers branch out

DANVILLE – They use them to play games, download music and e-mail their friends.

Now sixth-graders at North Ridge and South View middle schools will use computers to research, write and tackle other educational endeavors.

"Most kids see a computer as a toy, not as a tool," said Nancy Meeker, a language arts teacher at North Ridge. "I'm looking forward to showing them the other side of computers, and how accessing the Internet can open their world to all sorts of information."

Meeker will be able to do that thanks to technology that was installed in seven sixth-grade language arts classrooms at the middle schools late last week. Each classroom received one high-end central processing unit, as well as eight monitors, keyboards and mice that all run off the one CPU.

Students can work at the stations alone, trading off to give everyone a chance, or together in small groups.

"We really wanted our middle-school students to use the computer in their core subjects," said Carolyn Grant, the Danville School District's technology coordinator. "We felt that if they had them in their language arts classes, that would encourage them ... and help them to meet and exceed state reading and writing standards."

Until now, students didn't have that opportunity.

Each middle school classroom has one computer, which is used mainly by the teacher. The schools also have two computer labs, each with about 25 workstations, but they're monopolized by students learning key-boarding and computer skills.

School officials discussed adding a third lab at each school, Grant said. But equipment and infrastructure expenses were cost-prohibitive.

"Plus, the schools have limited space, so finding a room and furniture was a challenge," Grant added.

Then Christel Powell, the district's information systems manager, learned about the Novell Linux Desktop Multiplier system.

"It's a tremendous cost-savings to the district," Powell said. "If we see some success, we'd like to expand this to the seventh- and eighth-grade language arts classes ... even throughout the district as the funds are available."

The school district paid about $31,000 for the technology, Powell said. It includes seven CPUs; 56 workstations including monitors, keyboards and mice; battery back-up units; and engineering and support services.

She said the open-source software is free.

Powell said the tab for 56 desktop computers, plus Microsoft licenses and Windows software for each unit, would have run well over $60,000. The desktops also would have required installing more electrical outlets and wiring in each classroom.

In contrast, "this requires only one network connection and electrical outlet per system," she said. "Everything else runs through a battery back-up unit. And we're not using as much electricity, so there's a cost savings there, too."

Teachers said the system will be beneficial in numerous ways.

"Not everyone has a computer at home," North Ridge teacher Connie Faith. To use one "they would have to go to a friend's house or to the public library. But not everyone has transportation.

"The computers will be right here," she continued, adding students won't lose time moving back and forth to different rooms.

South View teacher Michelle Collins said the computer will be "a blessing" in the fourth quarter, when every sixth-grader is required to write a research paper. Until now, students had to research their paper during the one hour of the week they were scheduled for library time and on their own time.

"I had to go onto my computer and print out a lot of information for them," Collins said. "It was a challenge. I didn't mind doing it. But it takes away from them doing the research. They need to know how to do this, especially if they're going to college, because that's all college is."

Besides the web-based research, teachers said students can use the computers for word-processing, writing outlines, giving presentations, learning how to research and apply to colleges and for jobs, and much more.

Teachers said students are eager to start.

"I think they'll learn quickly," Meeker said. "Kids love computers. Kids love technology. Once you know the basics, transfer is easy."

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