Does Not Compute

At first glance the programming class at the Emerging Computer Technology magnet program at Dillard High looks exactly right: 20-odd students sitting side-by-side, with every eye locked onto a scrolling block of code, every finger dancing over a clicking keyboard, every face bathed in the light of a flickering screen.

A picture-perfect snapshot of techno-geeks in training, you might say -- except that one of the computers is covered by a hand-lettered sign that declares the machine, with no undue emotion, "DEAD," while another computer lies sprawled across a nearby desk with its cover ripped off and its electronic entrails spilling out like a gut-shot soldier.

Emerging technology?
Not even close. At the Emerging Tech magnet program, not only is most of the technology not emerging, it's not even declining. It's all but extinct.

The computers being used in this morning's class are of a type called a Mac LC, a product line that Apple abandoned years ago, according to Meg Kunkel, customer sales rep at MacCenter, where the computers were originally purchased -- way back in 1991. The computers are so old, she says, that as of September you can't even buy parts for them.

How can a program with Jurassic-era computers bill itself as a mecca of emerging technology? Good question, says program coordinator Sherilynn Noland. She wishes she knew. "When the name of the program is Emerging Technology, and you're putting students in front of eight-year-old computers... yes, this is a problem," she says.

Back when the Mac LC was designed, the hottest of today's high-tech industries -- robotics, multimedia, graphic animatronics, and computer-aided design (CAD) -- didn't exist in anything like their present forms. The high-tech world takes only "18 to 24 months" to reinvent itself with wholly new generations of ever more powerful computers, Noland says.

Meanwhile the policy of the Broward School District has been to wait five to seven years between districtwide rounds of computer purchases.

That timetable may work for most schools, but some believe that it doesn't make sense for the Emerging Tech magnet. "Some things are theoretical. Technology is not," says Josephus Eggelletion, Jr., a Democratic state representative and Dillard alum. "You have to experience it -- you have to have your hands on it -- in order to understand it."

At Dillard, hands-on experience takes the form of patching up dinosaur technology. "At the beginning of the semester, we had 32 working computers. Today I have 26," says programming instructor Ralph Nafziger. This year Nafziger has been cannibalizing old Mac LCs for parts to keep others up and running, a strategy of desperation by which he hopes to hold the line until summer vacation.

If there's any comfort in the situation, it lies in the fact that things used to be worse. Last year not only did the students in Robert St. John's third-year programming class lack an adequate supply of computers, they didn't even have textbooks. "Five months into the school year, and we were waiting for the books to arrive. You know, that I really don't understand," he says today.

Noland says equipment problems make it hard for Emerging Tech to attract students, which defeats the very purpose of the program. Dillard High, a predominantly black school located in a high-crime neighborhood near Sunrise and Interstate 95, actually has two magnet programs: Emerging Tech and Performing Arts. The idea is that the magnets will, by the quality of their offerings, attract students from outlying suburbs and therefore contribute to a multicultural student body.

"If a student is coming from Pines, Hallandale, Davie, Coral Springs, I have to make a presentation for the program that outweighs inconveniences, the distance, the time spent riding the bus, et cetera," Noland says.

But she's not found it an easy sell. Instead of talking about technology, she's reduced to talking up the fact that the three out of the ten fastest-growing job sectors in the country relate to high technology, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. She doesn't tell prospective students interested in, say, robotics that in her opinion the Emerging Tech robotics sequence "needs $12,000 to $15,000 to spend right now, today" on one or two cutting-edge, high-powered workstations.

She has little hope of getting them, even though the school board voted on December 15 to spend $15.2 million on laptops for teachers and workstations for classrooms. The way the district buys technology, "there's a list they give you, and every high school uses the same list. If the piece of equipment you need isn't on that list, then you have to apply for a waiver." Noland has applied for waivers in the past, only to find that "it slows the ordering process down to a snail's pace, and you know, it's not a very fast process to begin with."

Meanwhile, students aspiring to high-tech careers continue to graduate from Dillard without ever having laid hands on the latest equipment in a classroom setting. Multimedia students, for example, still use a "toaster" (a device for editing video images) that lacks the hard-drive space and processing speed necessary to store and manipulate lengthy digital sequences. The program's most powerful computer, the Macintosh G3-6500, has barely enough juice to handle processing-intensive tasks like CAD, multimedia, or robotics, says Jeff Burke, the jeans-clad Emerging Tech robotics instructor.

While the G3-6500 is a good computer, with a two-gigabyte hard drive and 233-megahertz processing speed, it's nothing mind-boggling, says Kunkel. "Dillard has no better computers than any other school," she says. "If they wanted a real kicking computer, they should get the G3-333, which has a 333-megahertz processor, one of the fastest."

To recent Emerging Tech graduate Shawn Farmer, the most useful thing about the magnet wasn't the classroom experience but the chance to intern at area high-tech companies that maintain partnerships with the program. After graduating Farmer got a job with one of those companies, Motorola, and now serves as a mentor for the next crop of Dillard students.

School board member Bob Parks promises that things will be getting better at Dillard as a districtwide process called "retrofitting" gears up. Retrofitting is designed to redress the inequities between older schools, such as Dillard, that have languished over the years as the district has directed most of its budget into building new schools in the western parts of the county. At Dillard this will mean an influx of as much as $40 million, he said.

But all this new money won't necessarily mean that Emerging Tech students get the newest equipment available. It simply means they'll get more of the same types of computers that can be found in every school in the district.

To advocates like Eggelletion, that's not enough. "Dillard is supposed to be the magnet high-technology program," he says. "It's not supposed to be the same as other schools in this regard; it's supposed to be far superior, so that it serves as a drawing card that makes kids want to come to this high school."

To Noland the answer is fairly clear: The district should give her the flexibility to ensure that Emerging Tech students are first in line for new hardware and software. That could mean experimenting with leasing arrangements, shopping outside the "approved" list, or creating a "pilot program" in which her students would be charged with evaluating hardware and software the district is considering purchasing.

Don't look for any of those ideas to see the light of day, says Joseph Kirkman, director of educational technology services for the Broward School District. For one thing, "I already have a professional staff that evaluates technology," he says. Moreover, "in order for leasing to be a viable alternative, you have to have a product that will still have a residual value at the end of the lease. When you're talking about computers, there is no useful life at the end of the lease."

Kirkman has another kind of solution in mind. "If you used left-brain logic, you might not think you wanted a technological program at Dillard at all," he says. Especially given that the trend has been to consolidate high-tech education at adult vocational centers such as McFatter Vocational in Davie or Sheridan Vocational in Hollywood. "If you look at the name 'Emerging Technology,' this was a name somebody picked out ten years ago," Kirkman says. "I'm not sure that's right anymore. Maybe we should change it."

Contact Paul Belden at his e-mail address:

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