Della Curtis, coordinator of Library Information Services for the Baltimore County Public Schools, isn’t one to shy away from a challenge.

When Curtis heard Vice President Gore issue a challenge to make the internet more “family friendly” during an online summit last December, she took his challenge to heart. She began to brainstorm how her district could encourage parents to become more involved in their children’s online education.

“It’s like literacy‹if I can’t read to my children, there’s something missing in their education,” Curtis said. “Well, many parents are computer-illiterate. Their children know more about computers than they do. We need to change that. We need to teach parents to work with their children on the internet just like they do in other subjects, like reading or math.”

From this simple challenge has sprung an extensive campaign spearheaded by Curtis and Doris Glotzbach, supervisor for the district’s library media centers. Called Parent Internet Education (P.I.E.), the program aims to educate all of Baltimore County’s parents about the internet. P.I.E. will launch officially with a Family Internet Expo at Towson University from June 5-7 and will continue with internet training sessions throughout the 1998-99 school year.

Parent training workshops

P.I.E. may be the most ambitious initiative of its kind in the country. Its steering committee, which includes noted cyberspace lawyer Parry Aftab, Esq., author of A Parent’s Guide to the Internet, is made up of 33 parents, students, library media specialists, and other representatives from around the county.

The committee has been meeting since January to outline the program. In March, its members sent a survey to 8,000 parents to determine what they already know about the internet, what they want to know, and how they currently use (or do not use) the internet with their children. Results of the survey will be used to design training workshops for parents beginning in the fall.

Curtis said the committee has just begun the task of compiling data from the surveys, but a preliminary scanning of 100 surveys showed that when asked the question, “Do you spend time online with your children?” 62 percent responded “no.”

The workshops, which comprise the core of the P.I.E. program, will take place at each of the district’s 162 schools. Workshops will be offered in the evenings and on weekends to fit into parents’ schedules. They will be taught by training teams consisting of the school’s library media specialist, a teacher, a parent, a student, an administrator, and a senior citizen.

“We wanted representation from all segments of the school community to show that the internet belongs to everybody,” Curtis explained. “We wanted to encourage not only parents, but also grandparents and other family members, to participate in the workshops. If an adult sees a grandparent or a child teaching people how to use the internet, he or she may think, ‘I can do this, too!'”

Training will be carefully crafted to be non-threatening and will include hands-on activities. It will cover topics such as how to find information on the world wide web, how to use the internet as a tool for parenting, and how to make the online experience safe for children.

“Kids may think they’re anonymous behind a computer screen, but they’re not,” Curtis said. “We want to make parents aware of the dangers involved, and also teach them the responsibilities required to be good net citizens so they can reinforce these [duties] at home with their children.”

Aftab is presently working on a script for a video which will be part of the P.I.E. training. In addition, the P.I.E. web site will link the training teams to educational materials already available on the internet. “Whatever we develop, we are going to share with everyone via our web site,” Curtis said.

Each school’s library media specialist will assume leadership for his or her school’s training team, Curtis said. All of Baltimore County’s library media specialists have received previous internet training through a grant from the U.S. Department of Education.

A Piece of the P.I.E.

The district is promoting its program with the slogan, “Get a Piece of the P.I.E.” To kick things off, Towson University will host P.I.E.’s Family Internet Expo next month.

The Expo will feature panel discussions with leading law enforcement experts such as personnel from U.S. Customs, child advocacy groups, and online specialists. Exhibitors from the internet industry‹manufacturers of filtering devices, developers of child-content sites, software and book publishers‹will be on hand to showcase their products and services and to answer parents’ questions. Numerous internet workshops and training sessions will also be offered.

To publicize the Expo, the steering committee has undertaken an extensive promotional campaign that includes public service announcements on the county’s education channel, local newspaper stories, weekly bulletins sent home with students, and speeches to all the PTA groups.

Curtis said the reception she has gotten from the PTA groups has been incredible: “They’re all nodding their heads as I’m speaking. They think it’s great that they’re being encouraged to participate in something more substantial than making cupcakes.”

Maryland’s State Superintendent of Schools, Dr. Nancy Grasmick, has also expressed her support. “One of our national and state goals of education is parental involvement,” Curtis said. “This program helps us meet that goal.”

While much of the start-up cost of the program will be funded by the Frances O. Fleming Fund‹a memorial fund established in honor of a previous library coordinator for Baltimore County Public Schools‹more money needs to be raised. Curtis and Glotzbach were busy rounding up corporate sponsors at the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development conference held March 21-24 in San Antonio and have sent 400 invitations to potential exhibitors or sponsors to participate in the district’s initiative.

The program’s biggest expense comes from its pledge to provide baby-sitting or transportation services to any parent who needs them for any P.I.E. event or workshop. “We wanted to provide the support necessary so that all interested parents could attend,” said Curtis.

As another incentive to get parents involved, a drawing for a computer workstation will be held at the end of the year. Parents will earn a chance to enter the drawing each time they attend a workshop or other event. Plus, a local internet service provider has offered to donate free service for a year to any parent who participates.

To track the success of P.I.E., students from the Randallstown High School mass communications magnet program will produce a video starting in April which documents the learning experiences of five families before, during, and after the project.

During the week of Sept. 16-23, the Baltimore County Public Schools will also conduct a Family Internet Town Meeting using the schools’ distance-learning labs and the local education channel. Aftab and a panel of experts, along with parents and children, will discuss issues and uses of the internet.

“We don’t want to scare parents about the dangers of the internet‹the media does a good job of that already,” said Curtis. “But we do want to point out the potholes in the information superhighway so parents can help their children learn to steer around them. By educating parents about both the bright and dark sides of the internet, we’re helping educate our children.”

Baltimore County Public Schools
http://www.bcps.org

Parent Internet Education program
http://www.bcpl.lib.md.us/centers/education/LibraryWeb/pie

The Parents’ Guide to the Internet by Parry Aftab, Esq.
http://www.familyguidebook.com