At the center of Redwood City, Calif., lies Sequoia High, the oldest high school in the Peninsula region of the San Francisco Bay area. Founded in 1895, the school’s main edifice was built in 1924, after an earthquake toppled the original building. Sequoia’s sun-drenched Spanish Renaissance tower is still majestic, belying the fortunes of the school itself.
On the hill to the west of the school lies a tony residential enclave. Here, the average home value approaches $2 million. Across the railroad tracks to the east, by contrast, are the so-called flatlands, where most residents rent tiny slab houses valued at a fraction of their highbrow neighbors’ homes. Students from both sides of the tracks like to refer to their town—without affection—as Deadwood City.
Sequoia High, like many Redwood City schools, has in fact verged on the moribund in recent years. Decades of low test scores resulted in the widespread flight of well-heeled white students to private schools. Today, the majority of students are of Latino heritage. Many live below the poverty line. Home PCs and Internet access have not been a fixture in most Sequoia students’ lives, but technology is a fixture of the community itself. With its stellar weather and convenient location between San Francisco and San Jose, Redwood City has become something of a high-tech mecca in the past year or so. Companies such as broadband services provider Excite@Home, IP telephony vendor Clarent Corp. and market researcher Zona Research make their headquarters in shiny chrome-and-glass buildings here. Cisco Systems, Oracle and Sun Microsystems are just down the street from Sequoia in neighboring towns. Though they are surrounded by need—hundreds of economically disadvantaged schoolchildren—these vendors have not always seen themselves as potential white knights. But that is slowly changing as some vendors have begun investing in the local schools—donating equipment, participating in job-shadowing programs, creating internships—doing their part to make President Clinton’s dream of ubiquitous Internet access for every schoolchild in America a reality. Redwood City in particular has been seeking ways to close the digital divide as local educators have begun building a comprehensive, multitiered IT curriculum for all school levels.
But while school officials have been happy to get vendors’ attention in the form of equipment and training programs, they have been disappointed by the low level of time and commitment these vendors have been willing to devote to the comprehensive IT education project currently under way. And, of course, these companies are not just out to be model corporate citizens. Scratch the surface of these burgeoning efforts, and you’ll find they are all to a greater or lesser degree motivated by the high-tech vendors’ desire to reduce the short- and long-term IT labor shortage by immersing students in technology when they are young. Another barely concealed motive is to indoctrinate young people in vendor-specific technology (such as Cisco’s networking technology or Oracle Internet standards) to widen that technology’s reach.
Town fathers are for the most part enthusiastic about the budding partnerships. Mayor Ira Ruskin recently met with members of the Silicon Valley Manufacturing Group (SVMG, www.svmg.org) based in San Jose, Calif. Founded by Hewlett-Packard cofounder David Packard, the SVMG is an organization of private corporations that works on transportation, the environment and other issues. Ruskin is hoping to get more vendor support in the schools, and he says meetings like this herald the future expansion of partnerships between industry and education.
The possibility that high-tech vendors may have motives other than pure philanthropy when investing in schools hardly condemns their efforts. What is unfortunate, however, is that in many cases vendors are throwing money, equipment and internships at schools without taking the time to truly interact with them to find out what their specific needs are.
In the Redwood City area, for example, a large percentage of the population consists of those who speak English as a second language (ESL). Vendor-sponsored programs in that area, therefore, need to reflect ESL students’ needs—and they usually don’t. For the most part, it is left to grossly overburdened teachers to try to retrofit these programs to suit their constituencies’ special needs. The danger is that companies will invest in schools only as a temporary stop-gap measure for solving their own staffing shortages. “[Companies] are thinking this is their best deal for growing their own workforce. But they need to look at it more as an investment in the future of the U.S. workforce,” says Marjorie Bynum, vice president of workforce development for the Information Technology Association of America (ITAA), an Arlington, Va., IT trade association.
Unfortunately, true investment for the future is rare indeed. It is still unclear whether these programs will pay off for students. For their part, the vendors say they plan to measure the returns of these programs by hiring independent agencies to study the issue, by tracking how many interns they hire as full-timers and (in certification programs) by watching how many students take and pass the certification exams. But these metrics have not yet been gathered. And are these programs doomed to fail without more vendor contribution?
Bridging the Digital Divide
To Larry Wagner, Redwood City’s digital divide seemed such a waste. Hypersuccessful companies plagued by the inability to find skilled technical workers coexisted alongside apathetic students facing fast-food futures. Wagner, a Sequoia electronics teacher and 33-year veteran of Sequoia Union High School District in San Mateo county, is tired of the status quo. The concern became especially pressing last year when the school committee voted to open up enrollment at all district high schools, beginning this year. This meant that students could attend the high school of their choice. Wagner feared few students would elect to attend Sequoia given the choice.
The underpinnings for the program currently under way were laid several years ago. When he first became concerned in the mid-’90s, rather than passively waiting for the inevitable, Wagner set out to build a technology education program that would attract and retain students. Sequoia already offered a highly acclaimed Electronics Academy (founded in 1980) in which students take a rigorous, specialized curriculum starting in their sophomore year. But with the growth of the computer industry in the late ’80s and ’90s, Wagner felt that the school should help prepare its students for jobs in computers. In 1996, he began developing an internship program with a division of Siemens, in nearby Santa Clara. But few students were ultimately chosen to become Siemens interns. “Our Academy students didn’t have the skills they needed to get into a high-tech company. They didn’t have the basic work skills, and they didn’t have the technical skills, either,” says Wagner. “We never felt like we were part of a team with Siemens.” Wagner believes the program fell apart because of a lack of two-way communication. “We weren’t involved in the design and development of the program,” he says.
Although he was discouraged, Wagner was determined to assimilate the lessons that failure taught him. In the future, he realized, it would be imperative to actively steer the relationship with a corporate partner—alliances tend to peter out if not constantly massaged. For one thing, people change jobs so rapidly that educators are always in jeopardy of losing their champions. For their part, vendors should be more vigilant in assuring they honor their commitments. Says Wagner, “I’m disappointed at times with the lack of follow-through.” Wagner learned to try, if at all possible, not to ally with a vendor without a fully committed sponsor. The last—and most important—lesson from the Siemens experiment was that Sequoia students lacked nuts-and-bolts technical skills (such as basic programming, Web design and networking expertise) that were sorely needed in the marketplace. The students also needed some basic polishing in the form of r¿m¿riting classes and direction on general work practices.
A New Direction
Casting about for something to occupy his summer that year (1996), after the end of the Siemens affair, Wagner began taking Novell networking courses at a local community college. He started chatting with his car-pool partner and fellow Sequoia High instructor, Cameron Dodge, (who was also taking the classes) about ways to get technical training to Sequoia students. A dream began to take shape. Wagner and Dodge imagined developing a robust IT curriculum that would give the students more advanced skills to help them obtain the high-paying jobs abundant in the local economy. Even more ambitious, they imagined creating an IT curriculum for middle schools at the one end and community colleges at the other that could be shared with all area schools.
But first they had to develop the program, and they didn’t want to do so in a vacuum. Wagner and Dodge longed for guidance from area high-tech companies as to exactly what skills they needed. But before that vision could become reality, a different kind of opportunity appeared. In 1998, Wagner applied for and received funds from the Regional Occupational Program (a county governmental body) that allowed Sequoia to become one of the first schools to make the Cisco Networking Academy, a college-level program, available to students. After completing the two-year course, students would be eligible to take the Cisco Certified Network Associate (CCNA) exam. The program paid the salary of the instructor, none other than Dodge. The only catch was that Sequoia had to open the program to adults from the community who needed to be retrained.
This stipulation turned into a godsend. “The interaction between the kids and the adults was great to see. The adults immediately brought the level of the class up. I wasn’t spending all my time dealing with the typical high school discipline problems,” says Dodge, now an IT instructor at Sequoia High. “The adults taught the kids what a great opportunity they had. They said, ’I wish I was in your place 10 years ago.’”
Denise Sandoval was one student ambitious enough to take the Cisco course. A recent graduate, Sandoval took the course when it first became available (and passed the CCNA exam this past spring). “I want to learn everything I can,” says Sandoval, who was named Outstanding Senior for the Sequoia Electronics Academy. Sandoval watched her mother work grueling days as an assembler at industrial connector manufacturer Raychem Corp. in Menlo Park and decided to take a different route. Sandoval interned at Excite@Home as a network operations associate last summer. She plans to take as many technical courses as she can at Mission College, a Santa Clara community college (see “Stepping Up to the Plate,” Page 266) and then transfer to a university where she’ll study computer science. Sandoval is the first in her family to graduate from high school and the first to attend college. Two other students have also done spectacularly well, according to Wagner, both getting job offers in the $40,000s—right out of high school.
Sequoia also offers the newly minted Oracle Internet Academy and CompTIA A+ computer repair program, both of which give students an opportunity to obtain highly marketable certifications. Last year, Wagner scared up enough money to buy laptops for every teacher and student enrolled in a certification program. Lack of home Internet access is not a problem, since the courseware is delivered on CD-ROMs as well as through the Internet. The students treated their laptops like gold. “I didn’t have any problems at all,” says Wagner. Each one was returned, in pristine condition, at the end of the year. And this success formed the basis for the more comprehensive IT education program Wagner and other school officials are launching this year. But there is a shadow on the vendors’ efforts. In 1998, when Wagner and Dodge received a $260,000, four-year Specialized Secondary Program (SSP) grant from the California State Department of Education to create their dream IT program, they were still hoping for more active vendor participation in developing the curriculum. But that was not to be.
Building a Dream
With the SSP grant secured in 1998, Wagner and Dodge plowed ahead with the creation of the curriculum. But in many ways they felt they were working in the dark. Desperately seeking vendor involvement, Wagner put out feelers at several companies but did not hear anything in reply. Wagner and Dodge had to go forward themselves. “We tried to get companies involved with the design and development of the IT program. We just couldn’t find the right person with enough time,” says Wagner. “We need to have a better interface between schools and industry. The divide continues.”
Wagner hopes a third-party organization like the ITAA will provide a future platform for that dialogue. The ITAA’s Bynum agrees her organization should be a go-between for education and industry. “We want to be a conduit for industry and educators to come together and talk about things,” says Bynum. But schools need to get their act together prior to approaching vendors, she says. That’s another area where ITAA can help. For example, the ITAA Techforce Initiative recently developed a standard methodology for a full-day job-sharing program. Educators can direct local employers to these resources rather than putting the burden on the vendors to figure out how to participate. “If you can put together the program, they will come,” says Bynum.
Despite their disappointment with the lack of meaningful vendor involvement, Wagner and Dodge forged ahead with the program, which was offered for the first time this year. The curriculum included a complete networking course (Computer Networking I and II), computer applications, and Web design and management. Next year, the program will also include computer repair and maintenance and an Oracle Internet Academy course on database design and SQL.
Students at the McKinley Institute of Technology, a Redwood City middle school, will be able to take the introductory IT course. If they pass it, they won’t have to take it again in high school and can instead proceed to tougher (and more exciting) IT classes. McKinley principal Cheryl Bracco is eager to expose her middle schoolers to real-world technology skills. “It’s not enough for us to have internships for college students. We have to start educating people young and getting them comfortable with computers,” says Bracco.
Redwood City vendors are taking some small steps to close the digital divide. Spurred on by a variety of motives, such as a desire for good PR, philanthropy and a need to improve the next generations’ IT worker pool, vendors such as Oracle, Excite@Home, Cisco and Sun take a variety of approaches to helping schools at the K-12 and college level. In addition to donating 7,000 network computers to 130 schools around the country, Oracle offers the Academic Initiative (which makes the Oracle curriculum available to universities at a nominal charge) and the Internet Academy (which comprises four semesters of Web training).
Excite@Home has preferred to concentrate on developing internships for its local high school students. Some companies go so far as to create regional skill alliances, according to ITAA’s Bynum, in which they “adopt” a school and provide crucial support in the form of an advisory board.
According to Lori Dalton, vice president of education initiatives for Oracle, the company is just starting to measure its programs’ benefits for schoolchildren. For example, last year, Oracle hired an independent consultant to assess whether the students who had received free network computers from Oracle improved their test scores and attendance rates, traditional measures of student performance. And the new Internet Academy comes with a built-in metric: how many students take (and pass) the Oracle Java Developer Certification exams. But as for the lack of significant involvement in the Redwood City comprehensive IT education project, Dalton says the company has limited resources, and it is not currently focused on getting involved with just one school or school district. And as for which schools it gets involved with, Dalton says Oracle does not consider economic aid as a sole factor but as one of many criteria.
If the vendors themselves are just starting to measure return on their investment in the schools, the same cannot be said for the state agency that granted a quarter of a million dollars to help make Redwood City’s IT curriculum a reality. At the end of each program year, the State Department of Education will look for ROI in the form of improved grades or test scores. If the program leaders (in this case, Wagner and Dodge) were to fail to show positive results on these metrics, the department would pair them up with technology-focused program leaders at other schools long before pulling the plug on the funding. “We want them to succeed,” says Jim Greco, a consultant with the department.
It is too soon to know if the companies’ efforts to help bridge Redwood City’s digital divide will be successful. The inflexibility of most vendors in the amounts of time and people power they are willing to devote to the projects appears to be a bleak fact of life.
Another question mark is whether these nascent corporate efforts would be able to weather an economic downturn, during which the number of IT job openings would almost certainly decrease. Even the vendors say they hope that economics will not dictate future alliances with educators. “We shouldn’t need an economic boom to go after talent at the public school level,” says Aida LaChaux, Excite@Home’s senior staffing manager. “We need to reach down and expose kids to computers early on—no matter what the economy is doing.”