Mike Bookey, a concerned parent, and Don Robertson, an enterprising math teacher, just might be the Lewis and Clark of school technology.

Their trailblazing partnership on behalf of the schools serving Issaquah,Wash., a community of 60,000 near Seattle, underscores the inestimable value that comes when schools and the community set out together to chart new territory in the age of the eSchool.

The duo were pioneers in the effort to make the Issaquah School District one of the first in the nation with full-fledged telecommunications capabilities.

Bookey compares the task that faced them nearly a decade ago to the epic journey of Western settlers along the Oregon Trail.

“When you’re in St. Louis, and you’ve got the whole trail in front of you, the Rocky Mountains seem pretty insurmountable,” Bookey observed. “But once you reach them, they don’t seem as difficult anymore.”

Nine years ago, when Bookey visited his daughter’s middle school, he was surprised at the lack of computer resources he found there. The only sign of modern technology was a forlorn computer room with a couple of archaic Radio Shack TRS-80 machines.

To a technology consultant like Bookey, who made his living installing computer networks for clients ranging from businesses to entire countries, it seemed like he’d set foot in a primitive world.

“They weren’t preparing my daughter for the kind of world that I lived in,” recalled Bookey.

But that was then. Today, the entire district sprints along the Issaquah School District telecommunications network (ISDNet), a modern computerized information system linking eight schools across 20 local area networks running 37 servers.

All teachers communicate from workstations equipped with networked computers, phones, and voice mail. Each student has computer access and an eMail account. Every classroom is wired for three to eight computers. Parents and administrators also communicate through the network.

What makes Issaquah’s network special is that it was built and is maintained by the district’s own high school students, with the help of school and community volunteers.

In 1989, only about 7 percent of the country’s computers were connected to a network. It was a volatile period in the development of school technology, and expensive mistakes were not the exception — they were the norm.

Lewis, Meet Clark

In 1988 voters had passed a $2.8 million technology levy to buy new computers for the district.

But legal issues had the money tied up, and school leaders were debating how to use the funds. Because competing voices advocated different directions for technology purchases, the district meant to allocate funds to each school to spend as it saw fit.

Bookey worried that, under such a plan, the money would be spent on VCRs, a random selection of computers, and other eye-popping gadgets. And if that happened, he knew, it meant the bulk of the money would be wasted, alienating voters and keeping the district from realizing the true possibilities of school technology.

He also knew the district, with hard work and smart planning, could create local area networks, provide computers to trained staff, and begin library automation — even within the constraints of limited funding.

Bookey began talking about his vision of a networked community. He convinced key administrators to create an “electronic village for learning.” He won the support of Superintendent Kateri Brow, Secondary Education Directors Sharon Layman and Margaret Davis, and Vocational Director Ron Louviere.

Don Robertson, a math and computer teacher from Liberty High, also heard Bookey speak and returned to Liberty to solicit faculty support. When Robertson began working with some of his programming students after school, it was the birth of the Technology Information Project (TIP).

In 1990, organizers of TIP set five district goals:

• Provide computer workstations for every teacher;

• ensure computer access for every K-12 student;

• create local and wide-area networks that would link every TIP machine in the district;

• upgrade the district communications systems to provide access among schools, students, parents, and international learning networks; and

• use students, staff, and volunteers to develop and oversee the whole project.

TIP depends on teamwork. In the fall of 1990, Sharon Layman, Issaquah’s director of elementary and middle schools, took on the leadership of the technology department. The department boasts six full-time positions, as well as teacher support at each of the two high schools: Liberty and Issaquah High.

Four teams were also created: applications development, communications, technical support, and user team. The first three teams were composed mostly of students and volunteers, and the fourth was made up primarily of teachers. In July 1991, Ron Leslie joined the Issaquah staff to head up network development.

Issaquah’s proximity to Microsoft and Boeing also allowed the school system to tap into the expertise of the executive management staff of those leading technology companies.

Under the guidance of the technology team, the early success of the program encouraged voters to approve a five-year, $6 million technology capital projects expenditure that included a telephone system, a voice-mail system, and student workstations.

Untapped well

“Computers aren’t like toasters or TVs,” said Bookey. “You can’t just plug them in and leave them.”

Operations theory in the business world holds that for every 20 or 30 employees who use a computer, the enterprise will need one person to provide technical support. In a school district of 11,000 students, teachers, and administrators, that’s 300 and 500 technicians.

“Obviously, we couldn’t write that into the budget,” said Bookey.

Issaquah’s solution: teach the students themselves to build and maintain the network.

“The students are here to learn,” Bookey pointed out. “Why not recruit them for the project and turn it into a learning opportunity?”

“We started in 1990 with eight students, four computers, and some wire. We said, ‘Here’s the basic equipment. Go ahead and build a LAN. If you can do that, then you understand 80 percent of networking.'”

TIP soon swelled from an after-school program to a full class period, and participating students even received credit from a local community college. TIP classes operated in both district high schools, with teachers David Edfeldt and Don Robertson.

“TIPsters” traveled to elementary and middle schools to train students and teachers there how to use the network, and they helped start TIP programs in the middle schools.

As the project expanded, so, too, did the confidence and support of school officials. The following year, students networked a classroom; then a whole school, and eventually the entire district was wired.

“The kids pulled at least 187,000 feet of twisted-pair wire,” Robertson said.

With the help of teachers and community volunteers, students installed the software and taught other students, teachers, and staff members how to use the system. Robertson emphasized that all this work was done by average high school students. He made this his motto: “Every computer here comes equipped with a teenager.”

In 1991, when Dave Edfeldt’s Issaquah High TIP students effectively used the internet to assist teachers, the district added internet connectivity to every desktop, and worked with the state of Washington to create a statewide telecommunications network.

Students involved in TIP are getting invaluable training for the high-tech job market. As Bookey noted, “If a kid approaches Microsoft or Boeing and says, ‘I helped manage a network of 4,000 computers, do you think you can use my skill?’ — what do you think they would say? ‘In a heartbeat!'”

Another hallmark of Issaquah’s technology program featured teachers in leadership roles. Two “seed teachers” per school served two-year terms as technology leaders. They were charged with learning about computers, networks, and applications so they, in turn, could work with TIP students and assist colleagues.

Seed teachers got training, a home computer, membership in a regional computer conference, and release days to work in their building. They served as building-level leaders on technology committees to funnel information to colleagues and troubleshoot equipment problems.

TIP today

The TIP program has been a remarkable success, but it remains an ongoing project. Students are planning further development of the network, including online calendars, purchase orders, budget information, computerized grade books for teachers, daily bulletins, and more. They’re also planning to make the school library catalogs available online, complete with magazine summaries and indices.

Said Bookey, “We’re only halfway to our goals.”

In telling the story of Issaquah, it’s clear the district’s success is a result of the people involved — the parents, teachers, students, and administrators who volunteered countless hours to make the network happen.

How did the district manage to bring so many people together to work for a shared vision of learning?

“We found that altruism works really well…if you can limit it to two-hour chunks,” Bookey joked.