Disadvantaged schools across the country will receive $1 million in state-of-the-art reference software from Microsoft Corp., the company announced on Sept. 2.

The contribution will be distributed to the nation’s 10,000 neediest schools through the Public Education Network (PEN), according to Microsoft President Steve Ballmer. Ballmer announced the donation, intended to celebrate the unveiling of the latest addition of the Encarta family of reference tools, before students from Bay Area schools during an event at San Francisco’s California Academy of Sciences.

It’s the biggest in-kind donation PEN has received, according to spokesperson Howie Schaffer. PEN is a national school reform association dedicated to improving student achievement for all children, especially those who attend the nation’s most disadvantaged public schools. It represents the interests of local education funds, or LEFs, organizations that raise and distribute funds for school reform efforts.

“Microsoft has moved to the head of the class with this tremendous act of corporate citizenship,” said Wendy Puriefoy, PEN’s president. “With Microsoft’s partnership, we are improving both the academic achievement and technological literacy of the nearly five million children that PEN serves nationwide.”

Significant Contribution

PEN will distribute 10,000 copies of Microsoft’s new Encarta Reference Suite 99 to its 27 LEFs, who will then get the software to local schools.

“This is the largest in-kind contribution we’ve received to date,” Schaffer told eSchool News. “It’s really an amazing piece of software . . . a powerful package.

“It’s a very significant contribution,” Schaffer added.

“We’ve spent a lot of time working with kids and watching them use the new version, and we’re encouraged with their response to the product,” said Craig Bartholomew, general manager of Microsoft’s learning business unit. “It’s a truly rewarding experience to watch kids’ excitement when they discover the rich variety of information at their fingertips.”

The Encarta Reference Suite 99 combines popular CD-ROM reference titles Encarta Encyclopedia 99 Deluxe Edition, Encarta Virtual Globe 99 and Microsoft Bookshelf 99 CD-ROM reference library.

Technology inequities

PEN is the nation’s largest network of independent, community-based organizations supporting school reform. The network is particularly interested in reform through technology, said Schaffer.

“Some of the greatest inequities in school funding are manifested in technology,” Schaffer said. “Poor children are given out-of-date or obsolete technology, computers that are slow, technology that’s outdated”—widening the gap of achievement between students in rich and poor schools.

Started with a grant from the Ford Foundation, PEN’s mission is to assist local education funds and other organizations in uniting and engaging their communities in building systems of public schools that result in high achievement for every child.

PEN serves nearly five million children in more than 250 school districts. In 1997, LEFs provided nearly $52 million to the nation’s public schools through more than 300 targeted school improvement programs.

The Encarta Reference Suite 99, which includes five CD-ROMs, was scheduled to be available in Sept. 1998. The price will be $69 after a $30 mail-in rebate.