Students plod along on slow Web

San Francisco may be known as a hotbed of high-tech innovation, but more than one-third of its public schools connect to the Internet with something that more closely resembles a rutted back road than a superhighway.

While 68 schools in the San Francisco Unified School District access the Internet via a relatively fast 10-megabit-per-second connection, 41 elementaries and high schools plod along on 1.5-Mbps T1 connections — barely enough for a single-family home, said Brianne Meyer, head of the district’s technology division.

When more than a handful of students or teachers use those slower connections at the same time, they can slow down or fail — putting an end to high-tech learning for the day, Meyer said.

“We have days when it works, and days when it doesn’t,” said Nur Jehan Khalique, principal at Sheridan Elementary School, whose staff and student computer labs share a T1 link. “If we’re working on a unit and it’s not up and running, we’re not tech people — it’s not like we can fix it.”

Schools that have faster connections are faring better — but they do not necessarily have every student online at the same time, such as at Balboa High School, where Michael Rosenberg is head of the Technology Academy.

“Our connections aren’t bad … but we don’t have computers for all the students. We just don’t have the resources,” Rosenberg said.

With better connectivity, students can take advantage of streaming-video programs that make learning more engaging, Meyer said. In addition, there are online-only programs that offer students individualized tutoring to help them keep up with their studies.

The vast majority of parents and teens — 80 percent and 86 percent, respectively — said familiarity with the Internet helps teens perform better in school, according to a 2005 report from the Pew Internet & American Life Project.

In some cases, students may not have a computer or Internet access at home, making access at school even more important, Khalique said.

This fall, the district will begin courtingbroadband companies that would provide 100-Mbps connections to every school, Meyer said.

The district currently pays AT&T $1.15 million per year for Internet connectivity — 74 percent of which is reimbursed through federal dollars. Schools that have more low-income students receive more money, Meyer said.

Because of those reimbursements, upgrading to the high-speed system shouldn’t cost much more than the district spends now, Meyer said. Some companies estimated the installation alone could otherwise cost $30 million.

San Francisco’s existing Internet connections are about on par with districts across California, most of which wire schools with 10 Mbps connections, said Todd Finnell, CEO of the K-12 High-Speed Network.

bwinegarner@examiner.com

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