The Pennsylvania government is spending $3.2 million dollars over the next two years for a controversial initiative to put computers with internet access in more than 4,000 day care centers throughout the state to ensure that children start school computer-ready.

“It’s as simple as this: Children who understand computers and the internet are more likely to succeed in the new technology-based economy of the 21st century,” said Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge of the initiative, called CyberStart. “CyberStart gives our kids a head start.”

Already, 121 day care centers in 32 counties are participating in the multi-year program, which gives children computer skills before they enter kindergarten—and, in most cases, before they learn to read.

But Lisa Atkinson Brown, the executive director of CyberStart, said the pre-schoolers won’t have any difficulty navigating CyberStart’s internet-based educational software, provided by Lightspan Inc.

“There is a voice-over that tells the kids what to do. When they open a game, there are instructions there,” Atkinson Brown said.

And what about managing the adult-size mouse?

“It helps kids with their fine motor skills, because they have to fine-tune it to get the computer to do what they want it to do,” she said.

Computers in schools are prevalent in every grade, including kindergarten. One of the goals of CyberStart is to prevent kids who don’t have computers at home from being left behind those who do.

“A lot of kids don’t have technology in their homes,” Atkinson Brown said. “CyberStart prepares kids for that kind of thing so they aren’t intimidated by computers when they enter school.”

Ellen Griffis, assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction at Pennsylvania’s Penn Manor School District and a former elementary school principal, said every kindergarten classroom in her district has at least one computer with internet access—but learning at that age doesn’t require a lot of technology.

“A lot of what happens in kindergarten is socialization,” Griffis said. Students learn to work with other children, they learn to work with a teacher, and they learn skills such as counting and reading.

In kindergarten, the computer is less of a teaching tool than in the higher grades. Kindergarten students at Penn Manor often participate in rotating activity centers, each designed to teach a particular skill, and one of those centers might involve a computer.

“I’ve never seen any of our kids intimidated by computers,” Griffis said. “I don’t see kids being intimidated by computers as adults are.”

Only licensed day care centers that serve children between three and five years old are eligible to take part in Cyberstart. Participating centers receive full-size IBM computers, color printers, internet-based education content from Lightspan, and internet filtering software.

They also get basic computer and internet training, help-desk support, internet service, installation of hardware, technical assistance, and administrative support.

CyberStart requires all day care staff to learn basic computer skills, including how to navigate web-based educational content, how to use the web as a resource, and how to integrate technology into pre-school.

The state has committed $1.6 million for CyberStart over two fiscal years. The program is administered by the Department of Community and Economic Development in conjunction with the Departments of Public Welfare and Education.

It’s hard to say what impact computer and internet access will have on Pennsylvania’s pre-school-aged children, but the governor hopes it will help advance the state into the new economy. After Penn State University and the University of Pittsburgh finish designing and implementing an evaluation of the CyberStart program, there might be more conclusive evidence of the program’s impact.

Until then, Griffis maintains that technology in the classroom is not a cure-all, but just another tool.

“I see the primary years as such important years for learning, socialization, and reading and writing,” Griffis said. “If I had the choice of teaching a child to read or to teach a child to use a computer, I’d choose to teach the child to read.”

CyberStart

http://www.cyberstart.org

Pennsylvania Department of Education

http://www.pde.psu.edu

Penn Manor School District

http://www.pmsd.k12.pa.us