Although national programs that support school technology generate most of the attention, it’d be a mistake to ignore the significant contributions you can get from local businesses, government, and the community. In fact, taking the local route can be a much more effective path to technology funding, as the experience of Lesley Robinson and a cluster of schools located in Laurel, Md., shows.

By working with business and political leaders in the community and tapping a state technology program, Robinson and the rest of the members of the Laurel Online program have gotten 900 computers for 10 schools in this town of about 150,000 residents.

All 10 schools will be wired to the internet on T-1 lines by December. Twenty teachers and support staff already have been trained on using computers, and more training is under way.

“What we’ve been able to do in about two years is beyond my wildest expectations,” Robinson said.

Seemingly overnight, Laurel Online went from being an ineffectual committee that dreamed about bringing computers into classrooms to a juggernaut that made it happen. They’ve pulled together resources from the town’s mayor and local benefactors, a state technology grant program, Maryland’s governor, and technology giants such as Apple, Cisco, Dell, and Microsoft.

Six lessons
learned in Laurel

Lesley Robinson of the Laurel Online local technology program managed to secure computers, T-1 links, and training for 10 schools. Here are six tips that Robinson offers: ….

  • FULL STORY

  • How’d they do it? Robinson is eager to share her story and the lessons she has learned.

    Two years ago, the county in which Laurel is located–Prince George’s County–organized its schools into clusters. At the top of the Laurel cluster was Laurel High School. It was fed by two middle schools and seven elementary schools. This cluster had a technology committee. “We met monthly, but it became abundantly clear that we were not getting what we wanted or needed for our cluster,” Robinson said.

    At the same time, Laurel Mayor Frank Casula was in the midst of a multi-year project to attract more businesses to the town. “When I first was elected six years ago, we had office vacancy of about 23 percent and about the same for retail,” Casula told STFB. “I knew we needed to develop a group of businesspeople who could turn this around.”

    The business group, the Laurel Economic Advancement & Development Commission (LEAD), succeeded in its aim: Within a few years, office vacancy was below three percent, and retail vacancy was at 15 percent. “But then we started hearing that real estate agents were encouraging potential home buyers to go to Howard County [just north of Laurel] because the schools were better,” Casula said. “I said to myself that LEAD needed to do something to help Laurel High School and make ourselves more attractive to employees of companies in the area.”

    Casula visited one of the school technology committee meetings and explained that LEAD wanted to support the schools, particularly through technology. He asked participants to write out a technology wish list, explaining how they would use their new resources. The committee did as it was told–and Casula wasn’t pleased with the plan. “He said, ‘You write like educators,'” Robinson recalled. “So he put us in touch with a local businessperson who was able to help us make our message more appealing.”

    That person was John McBeth, now group vice president of CommerceOne, a leading internet business-to-business facilitator. “The school committee had listed these incredibly small things, like a printer cartridge or an extra photocopier,” McBeth said. “They needed a real plan with real vision.”

    McBeth’s former company, AppNet (now merged with CommerceOne), was in the business of helping mid-size and large companies design their web strategies for marketing and operations. “We help companies conceptualize how they want to transition to the web-based world,” he said.

    McBeth helped the Laurel school cluster committee identify its vision. Working with McBeth, the committee crafted a sophisticated plan that would infuse technology at all grade levels, beginning in kindergarten. “Our kids will use computers for 12 years, so by the time they hit college and the work force, they will be very adept,” Robinson said.

    About this time, a local developer, Caleb Gould, also came aboard. “He’s a philanthropist in the area, and we were very lucky to have him take an interest in us,” Robinson said.

    Having Gould in her corner was especially important as Robinson took her plan to local businesses to hone her message. Eventually, she and McBeth created a presentation of about 30 slides, sprinkled throughout with visits to web sites to show what could be done with the technology. A virtual trip to the moon on NASA’s site and few moments of tuning in to a radio station from Russia were the kinds of “wow” features she incorporated into the presentation.

    “We did a little branding, such as coming up with the name Tech4Kids, which came from a contest we held at my company, AppNet,” said McBeth. “We also created a nonprofit group that could accept funds to make the project happen.”

    McBeth also encouraged the Tech4Kids group to think in large terms. With input from the principals of all 10 schools in the cluster, the proposal eventually included requests for computers, internet connectivity, computer labs, substantial back-office support, training, and much more.

    In May 1999, Robinson gave the full presentation of the Tech4Kids program for the first time. The response was overwhelmingly positive. “We shocked ’em. We didn’t ask for a hundred thousand dollars or anything like that. We asked for $4 million,” said McBeth. “And they loved it. We literally had business owners at this meeting standing up and offering to donate money to the program.”

    Having generated so much enthusiasm from the business community, Robinson next sought support from state government officials. Mayor Casula is a political ally of Maryland Gov. Parris Glendening, and Casula was able to convince the governor’s chief of staff, Major Riddick, to attend a subsequent presentation of the Tech4Kids plan. Riddick, already an advocate of advancing technology into Maryland’s schools and workplaces, was impressed with the program.

    A few weeks later, Riddick announced that Gov. Glendening saw this program as a model for the entire state. Riddick’s commitment of state resources lent all-important credibility to the project, its players agreed. Lieutenant Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend made the official announcement that the state’s Technology in Maryland Schools (TIMS) program would support Tech4Kids, which further increased its high profile.

    Then Riddick went the extra mile, as had so many others along the way. He convened a meeting of the Tech4Kids group and Maryland’s leading high-tech employers and expressed in unmistakeable terms that the governor wanted to see widespread support for the program. “Major Riddick got about 40 people into this meeting and pointed at people around the room–Microsoft, Apple, everyone–and just said, ‘We need this from you, and we need this from you,'” McBeth marveled.

    Suddenly, new doors (and wallets) opened. From that point, it’s been one success after another:

    • The 10-school cluster has nearly 900 computers, including 384 Apple iBook laptops for teachers and 500 Dell PCs for students. The student-to-computer ratio will be seven-to-one.

    • Connecting each school to the internet began this summer and will be completed in December, with funding coming from the TIMS grant program.

    • Apple has donated some training, as well as Airport cards to make two schools wireless.

    • Teachers who are comfortable with computers or who took the Apple training are becoming mentors to their colleagues. “It’s unheard of for a teacher to call a teacher at another school for help, but it happens here,” said Robinson.

    • Parents came aboard this summer with the creation of a committee, called Advocates of Laurel Online, to develop an online bulletin board and to seek parents who will volunteer as computer resource associates in the schools. The committee already has 85 members, several of whom began the year by troubleshooting computers obtained over the summer.

    The job isn’t finished. Laurel Online is now reaching out to local businesses to find internships for middle school and high school students who’ve learned a bit of network management or other computer skills. Program coordinators also plan to offer computer training in the evenings to parents, if funding to can be found.

    “We’ll pound the pavement for more funds for training this year,” Robinson said. “Plus, we now have a network of businesses and government that we’re working with to use the technology to its fullest. The exciting times are ahead.”

    For more information about Laurel Online’s remarkable fund-raising success, contact Lesley Robinson at lcr1109@aol.com.