It should come as no surprise that one of the world’s leading computer networking companies is heavily involved in linking schools with libraries, government offices, and other resources in their communities.

In 1996, 3Com drew public acclaim when it helped the Boston public school system become the first urban system in the country to become fully connected to the internet. Many people credit that achievement—and the widespread media coverage of it—as helping to spur momentum for the eRate program that is supporting internet connections for K-12 public schools across the country.

3Com continues to work with schools to install fast, reliable connections to the internet, but its grant-making has shifted towards using its expertise in networking to offer schools and communities telecommunications links of unprecedented speed, cost-effectiveness, and reliability. The company’s business arm calls these super-fast local fiber optic connections Municipal Access Networks (MAN).

Linking schools to MANs is the goal of many of 3Com’s first set of $100,000 Urban Challenge grants, awarded in January. These grants (see details below on the 10 winners) support educating children and keeping them in school, said Bill Swift, 3Com manager of education industry grants. “The eRate program is great for getting internet connections into the schools,” said Swift. “However, once the schools are connected, they realize that their phone lines are expensive and also are their slowest part of the communications network.”

3Com’s $100,000 grants cannot create a MAN, of course, but for schools operating in areas where a MAN has been built, the funds for equipment and support services can build the connection to the MAN.

Working with mayors to drive school technology

3Com’s Urban Challenge, while focused on schools, is unusual in that it works through mayors and city officials instead of the school bureaucracy. “The essence of Urban Challenge is a strong mayor willing and able to bring together interested parties and key constituents to leverage resources in the city,” said David Katz, director of Global Market Development at 3Com. “We look for cities in which mayors can step up to the plate the way Mayor [Thomas] Menino did in Boston to begin the process of connecting their communities.”

When communities are linked and people are taught to use the resources, other benefits accrue, said Katz. City agencies can communicate more effectively with each other, and they can improve their services to citizens. Library access, for example, can be improved by providing students with access to information outside of the normal hours a library building is open, he said. And students can contact city officials and others in their community more easily to learn how to solve problems in their hometowns.

When the program was initiated in Boston, the city’s schools had one computer for each 63 students; when it was completed, the ratio was one computer for every seven students. Just opening the level of access to this degree brought immediate benefits, said Menino.

Although support from city hall is essential for the successful Urban Challenge grant candidate, Swift encourages school administrators and members of Boards of Education to bring their ideas to city officials. “We’re looking for application letters on city letterhead, but we also want to see that schools are involved,” said Swift. “The key is to figure out who the supporters and partners will be.”

With enthusiasm for the Urban Challenge grants running high, 3Com has committed another $1 million this year to be split by 10 more grantees. Applications are due by April 15; visit 3Com’s web site (see link above) for more information.

This way of coordinating many elements of public life in cities may be part of a trend to help shrink the digital divide, others say. “I see many more opportunities for pioneering companies to collaborate with innovative public officials to deliver access to technology in our schools and libraries and public facilities nationwide,” said J. Thomas Cochran, executive director of the U.S. Conference of Mayors, which helped choose the initial ten recipients.

Other programs

The Urban Challenge Grant is 3Com’s most visible program, but the company also quietly makes large donations of computers and networking equipment or services on an informal basis. “This isn’t very well known, so it allows us to say yes to most applicants,” Swift said.

3Com also has developed the highly regarded NetPrep courses, a curriculum designed to train students for careers in creating and maintaining computer networks. The courses, available for free online and through free textbooks, are used by about 250 high schools and 50-60 two-year colleges to help train students for careers in network management. NetPrep information can be accessed at http:// education.3com.com.

Finally, 3Com offers one of the leading sites created to help schools apply for eRate grants. With the eRate program now in its third year, Swift suggested that applicants make sure to emphasize in their applications how they are “taking their programs to the next step.”

3Com’s 10 Urban Challenge winners

Baltimore, Md., will network the libraries of 187 public schools in the city. This project will connect all schools in the city to the internet.

Charleston, S.C., will develop pilot technology programs in several schools and document the results so that the programs can be enhanced and shared with other schools throughout the city. As part of the grant, 3Com will set up NetPrep centers at high schools to prepare students for high-tech jobs.

Chaska, Minn., is building a MAN that links the schools to the libraries and city services as well as to the internet. This is part of a long-term effort to integrate computers into the learning process starting at the elementary level.

Chester, Pa., will partner with the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and Widener University to build a multimedia distance learning curriculum that will train Chester students for high-skill jobs. The program will use the South Eastern Pennsylvania MAN and build on NetPrep programs in the Philadelphia area.

Denver will combine voice and video services on a city-wide MAN that will allow for distance learning at schools throughout the city. As part of the project, Denver is doubling the number of computers available to students and expanding the underlying network infrastructure.

Glasgow, Ky., is installing a MAN, which will be owned and operated by the city and link all residents to the public schools and to city services. The network will foster more parental involvement in schools.

Madison, Wis., has an existing citywide school network and is now ready to move to the next level of performance with an enhanced network that will allow more students in the public schools to access educational resources online, including videoconferencing and distance learning projects with the University of Wisconsin.

New Orleans’ YO! NOW! initiative will provide for computer kiosks throughout the city to reach students who have dropped out of school and those that may be in danger of dropping out. The new computer network will connect the kids with training alternatives and job opportunities.

Pontiac, Mich., is building a MAN that will integrate voice, video, and data services to establish a world-class information infrastructure for the city’s schools and libraries. The network will bring access to technology to a city in which over 50 percent of students are eligible for the federal free lunch program and help promote a new standard of educational excellence.

Providence, R.I., will network its remaining two high schools and bring the internet to all city high schools. Teachers will integrate computers and the internet into their classroom lesson plans. n