When Youssef Yomtoob first became superintendent of Hawthorn Elementary District 73 in Vernon Hills, Ill., he successfully led the implementation of computers and internet access into every classroom and library in the elementary-level school district.

Now, he plans to level the technological playing field of students of all economic backgrounds by connecting every home in the district to the internet.

Yomtoob, also known as Dr. Joe, recognizes that students who have internet-connected computers at home have an advantage over those who don’t—and he wants to do something about it.

“We would like to see that every house that has kids who go to our schools has internet access,” Yomtoob said. “If all our children have access to the internet [at home], that will enhance learning and the opportunity for success for all children.”

He isn’t sure how much it will cost or what, exactly, each household needs, but he does know some homes will need computer equipment—and a few will even need to have phone lines installed. At this point, “this is just a dream more than anything else,” he said.

The district’s school board doesn’t have any worries about Yomtoob’s dream to wire every household in the district.

“We realize that it’s a huge undertaking. It has many challenges, but that doesn’t bother any of us,” said Rich Paul, a member of the Hawthorn school board. Yomtoob has the outgoing personality required to make this vision successful, he explained.

“He’s not shy about asking people for things or telling people to do things, depending on the situation, and building a consensus,” Paul said. “Dr. Joe has the ability to make people see what the benefit is for them, as well as the benefit for the greater good.”

Since he doesn’t want to use public money to pay for his plan, Yomtoob said, he will form a foundation—involving city officials, local businesses, and the school district—to organize and raise funds for the initiative.

“We have a certain portion of our population that does not have access to the internet, which is important for school work and communication with parents,” Yomtoob said. “Fifteen to 30 percent do not have access to the internet at home.”

The foundation will need to provide resources such as hardware, phone lines, training, and internet service. It also will need to sustain and support the effort.

Yomtoob, who has been toying with this idea for the last four or five years, was expected to hold a summit to encourage city officials, businessmen, and state politicians to band together and create partnerships to accomplish this goal.

Although it is still early, parts of the community have expressed interest, he said. For example, one internet service provider has volunteered to provide every low-income household with a connection.

“We want to be the first school system to bridge the digital divide,” Yomtoob said. “We are taking leadership because, as a superintendent, it’s my belief that every kid has the potential to be successful—but [to do that] they have to be equal.”

When Yomtoob first became superintendent of the 3,400-student district five years ago, he convinced residents to pass a bond issue to spend $500,000 to $700,000 each year on technology.

Now, the K-8 district has 800 computers networked with fiber optics and T1 connections. Every classroom is wired and has at least one computer connected to the internet.

The district’s 250 teachers use the production and multimedia labs for teaching, where students practice both digital photography and digital cinematography.

At each school, a team of teachers is trained to provide technology leadership within their school. They do everything from troubleshooting to training fellow teachers. The teachers have internet connections at home and have full eMail accounts. Some students also have eMail access.

“When Dr. Joe was hired, I don’t think our schools had much in the way of computers except for a few Macintosh computers,” Paul said. Now, all the classrooms—including the ones built in 1932—are connected to the internet.

Robert Hudson, the district’s technology director, agreed that students’ access to technology took a quantum leap after Yomtoob became superintendent.

“It was wonderful for him to put so much confidence in our department,” Hudson said. “At one point, he handed us $2 million and said, ‘Make it happen.'”

Technology to enhance learning was one of the goals Yomtoob enacted when he started as superintendent. “He’s always got his eye on what’s important for these kids,” Hudson said, appreciative of Yomtoob’s leadership.

“You can’t dream without the support structure, and it has to come from the top—and Dr. Joe is the one to make it happen,” Hudson said. “It’s been very motivating and very exciting to work with him.”

Paul described Yomtoob as having great vision and “more ideas than anyone could imagine—more than he could tell the school board about. Any time someone has an idea, the reaction isn’t, ‘Oh, we tried that and it didn’t work.’ Typically, the reaction—whether [the idea] comes from the school board or a teacher or a staff member—is ‘Hmmm, that might work.'”

Realizing that learning doesn’t just happen at school, Yomtoob sees connecting every family to the internet as an opportunity to extend learning into all homes. Not only will it expose students to technology, but their parents will benefit as well.

“His heart is really in it for ‘all children will learn and all children will succeed,'” Hudson said.

Hawthorn School District 73