At Pinon High School on the remote Navajo Reservation in Arizona, principal Lee Fleming was awaiting hookup to the internet in August.
Once the classrooms are connected, the next step will be to train the teachers of the 450-student school on how to use the technology.
To help with this, software giant Microsoft Corp. said it would give $1.2 million to Navajo schools to help provide training for teachers trying to expose their students to computers and the internet.
“It’s of utmost importance that we train our teachers, and continue to train our teachers, otherwise we can’t keep up with the industry,” Fleming said. “Our society is going toward computers in every sense of the word.”
Few of the students at Red Mesa Middle School near the Utah line have telephones at home, never mind internet access.
Only 20 percent of the 400 grade school students who attend class in the 40-year-old rundown building at Red Mesa have phones at home, and some travel for hours along dirt roads to reach the school.
“It’s just reality here,” said Rebecca Norris, the school’s principal. “We’ve got parents that get to town once a month, but they are just as concerned about their children’s education and just as involved as any other parent.”
Thanks to a federal grant the Red Mesa Unified School District received two years ago, every classroom is connected to the internet, and students attend weekly computer labs, but teachers still need more training on how to use the technology.
The district is part of the Navajo Education Technology Consortium, which received a five-year, $7.6 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education making the computers possible.
Microsoft announced on Aug. 4 it would donate training to the consortium for teachers in 12 Navajo school districts in Arizona, New Mexico, and Utah.
The Microsoft grant will set up four training centers on the reservation and will provide software to 50 schools.
It also will be used to set up a web site through which Sanders Middle School near the New Mexico line can communicate with students at a Phoenix middle school.
Gary Willman, general manager of Microsoft’s Southwest District, said a Department of Education survey shows only one in five teachers feels prepared to teach in a modern classroom using computer technology.
He said Navajo Nation teachers face even more obstacles because of their out-of-the-way sites.
“Due to isolation, we don’t have some of the resources,” said Tommy Yazzie, president of the consortium and superintendent of the Kayenta Unified School District near the Utah line.
“That’s the problem with most school districts. We just don’t have the money to keep up with the technology.”
A recent study by the Milken Foundation reported that eighth-grade language scores in Navajo and Apache counties, located mostly within the reservation, were 15 percent and 22 percent lower than the state average. Math scores were 12 percent and 18 percent lower.
Yazzie said the Navajo students’ use of computers and the internet will help them inch upward.
“As we open school doors this fall, I believe we will be able to meet the needs of young people in a way that will help these young people to learn,” he said.
Red Mesa Unified School District