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Program helps schools go online

The E-rate program provides funding for wiring and recurring telecommunication charges. Lynch Elementary is one school that has benefited.

School resumes Aug. 25 at Lynch Elementary, where 750 students will enjoy a computer network their school could never afford _ until now.

After more than a year of congressional wrangling, federal aid in the form of technology discounts has arrived at Pinellas schools.

Out of $2.2-million in savings to mostly south Pinellas schools, Lynch will save about $150,000, an 80 percent discount that was the largest windfall among elementary schools.

"We have arrived," said principal Kathleen Proper. Lynch, built in 1958, is at 1901 71st St. N.

The aid that Lynch and 121 other Pinellas schools will receive is from the federal E-rate program (E is for educational). It was designed to pay between 20 percent and 90 percent of recurring telecommunications charges and Internet access charges, plus the one-time cost of internal building connections, to allow schools and libraries to have Internet access.

Every school that applied for the E-rate will save on its recurring charges, from $500 to about $2,000, according to Judy Ambler, supervisor of instructional technology for Pinellas schools.

But because of cuts to the E-rate program, only 30 schools will save on the biggest expense _ wiring a campus and connecting it to the Internet. Lynch is one of those schools, mainly because it is among the neediest.

E-rate savings are tied to the percentage of students at a school who receive free or reduced-price lunch. Almost 60 percent of Lynch students qualify for the subsidies.

At Lynch, the connections are almost complete. The project, which district officials predict would have taken five to 10 years to pay for without the E-rate, took only the summer.

The changes are drastic _ the difference between a few pockets of Internet access and a backbone of service running through the school.

Before, three or four classes shared one computer with Internet access in each building, plus another seven computers in the media center. Those connections were made by parent volunteers, who pulled wires through walls on weekends.

When students return this month, they will see at least two computers in each classroom, Proper said.

At least one computer will be for students only. A second will be the teacher's "work station," a set-up that will project a likeness of the computer screen onto a movie screen for the entire class to view.

As Lynch is able to pay for more computers with state technology funds and through PTA efforts, the new wiring will allow four computers per classroom access to the Internet. E-rate savings do not extend to computers and software.

In addition, the E-rate is helping pay for a closed-circuit television network, so Lynch students can produce their own shows and Proper can make video announcements to the entire school.

District officials recently sent in the second round of E-rate applications, hoping to receive wiring discounts for schools that didn't get them this year, or for schools that could not apply. In order to apply, a school must prove it can pay the difference between the discount and full price.

Some schools had so few extra dollars raised by parent groups or left over from other technology purchases that they could not produce the matching funds. Plus, the cuts made last year to the E-rate program meant only schools that demonstrated the most need received discounts.

Few middle and high schools received E-rate discounts. That is because fewer students sign up for free or reduced-price lunch at those grade levels, since older students are more sensitive to the potential stigma. If eligible students don't sign up, however, schools cannot prove they are needy enough to qualify for the E-rate.

With the completion of the E-rate projects this fall, 106 of 133 Pinellas schools will have campuswide networks to provide Internet access in each classroom, according to Ambler, the technology supervisor. Another six schools, now undergoing renovations, soon will be connected.

The E-rate, Ambler said, "has enabled us to move to the next level."

SAVING MILLIONS

The Pinellas school district has received $2.2-million in technology discounts from the federal E-rate program. Instead of paying full price for wiring, building connections and Internet access charges, schools pay a discounted price, and the government picks up the tab. All 122 schools that applied for funding received some discount, though schools with high numbers of students who receive free or reduced-price lunch will see the most savings.

EXAMPLE: The estimated cost of connecting Lynch Elementary School to the Internet is $186,670. With the E-rate discount, however, Lynch pays only $37,334.

THE TOP 30 AND HOW MUCH THEY SAVED:

John Hopkins Middle $160,379

Lynch Elementary 149,336

Sawgrass Lake Elementary 147,850

Lealman Ave. Elementary 120,486

Tyrone Middle 91,758

Lakewood Elementary 69,905

Gulfport Elementary 61,221

Meadowlawn Middle 60,043

Mt. Vernon Elementary 48,995

Northwest Elementary 44,990

Sanders Exceptional Center 37,974

Skyview Elementary 34,915

Ponce de Leon Elementary 33,527

Woodlawn Elementary 32,820

Melrose Elementary 31,500

Madeira Beach Elementary 30,867

Eisenhower Elementary 29,144

High Point Elementary 28,856

Bear Creek Elementary 26,165

74th Street Elementary 25,850

Starkey Elementary 24,163

Tyrone Elementary 23,850

Walsingham Elementary 15,907

Skycrest Elementary 14,402

Safety Harbor 13,324

(disciplinary program)

Southern Oak Elementary 13,311

Pinellas Park Middle 12,224

Azalea Elementary 11,025

North Shore Elementary 9,987

North Ward Elementary 9,165

Source: Pinellas schools

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