When Katrina ripped through Mississippi's Gulf Coast, the region's schools were already in a world of hurt. The state was ranked forty-seventh in per-pupil spending, nearly one-third of its population lived in poverty, and 80 percent of public school kids in many areas were on a free-lunch or reduced-price-lunch program.
So when John T. Chambers, CEO of networking-equipment manufacturer Cisco Systems, in San Jose, California, publicly offered $20 million each to the states of Mississippi and Louisiana to transform some storm-devastated schools into high tech institutions of the future, nobody balked. "John's idea was a little self-serving," concedes Jim Barksdale, former CEO of Netscape and chairman of Mississippi governor Haley Barbour's Commission for Recovery, Rebuilding, and Renewal. "But we were so desperate, we couldn't afford to be proud. We'd take anybody's money."
Chambers's idea is the 21st Century Schools program, a three-year initiative designed to inject state-of-the-art technology and Mississippi's share of the initiative's bankroll into the schools of some of the state's most storm-damaged areas. Through a partnership with the University of Southern Mississippi, the program will provide schoolwide wireless access, in-class rich streaming media, videoconferencing, storage servers, and back-office programs. Cisco is also paying the salaries of ten Cisco "Fellows" -- employees on sabbatical who will spend a year teaching educators how to use the equipment; eight of them are already in the field.
For Hank Bounds, who became Mississippi's state superintendent of education one month before Katrina hit, Cisco's cash infusion is a "miracle." But he isn't buying the idea that technology is a cure-all for the state's public education woes. "Technology is just another tool in the tool belt," Bounds says.
Somewhere else in that tool belt, however, Bounds has to find $668.4 million to repair and replace schools and equipment ruined by the hurricane, which damaged 263 schools in seventy-nine school districts; sixteen campuses were totally destroyed. The storm also devastated the Gulf Coast's property tax base and its gaming industry; the latter pumped about $300 million in tax income into state funds annually. "Finding ways to make up the tax shortfalls is a real dilemma," allows Barksdale.
Unfortunately, Cisco's cash won't help Bounds with his financial crisis. Nor will it benefit most of the 165,000 students affected by the storm. By its own admission, the company hopes to reach about 20,000 children at thirty-three schools in seven school districts. Those in the remaining seventy-four Katrina-hit counties are out of luck.
"We had $25 million in damage, and our two newest elementary schools had to be totally gutted, but we've seen no corporate money," laments Paul Tisdale, superintendent of the Biloxi Public School District. Notes Arnold Fege, director of public engagement and advocacy at the Public Education Network, a nonprofit advocacy group for poor and disadvantaged schoolchildren based in Washington, DC, "I would be ecstatic if I got the Cisco money, but what about the districts that don't get it?"
The students and teachers of Rowan Elementary School, in the Hattiesburg Public School District, are among the fortunate few: Cisco plans to spend $1 million transforming Rowan into one of its first 21st Century Schools success stories. Now in the planning stages, with hardware installation under way, Cisco's grand scheme for Rowan includes an elaborate network with video and voice capabilities, individualized online learning materials, and administrative assessment programs. The plan includes a program that teaches parents and teachers how to use the technology, both online and through a family's cable television hookup, thanks to partnerships Cisco has forged with several local cable providers. In addition, Promethean, based in the United Kingdom, has supplied interactive whiteboards.
The gadgetry will allow Rowan teachers to introduce interactive learning in every classroom with computers. A history lesson on naval vessels, for example, might involve materials cached from online education content providers, such as ProQuest's eLibrary, with which Cisco has licensing agreements. A teacher could display pictures of ships, downloaded from ProQuest, on a Promethean whiteboard, and ask students to vote on which one they think is a galleon. Computerized feedback will help teachers quickly identify students who are having trouble with a particular lesson, and which ones are succeeding.
Cisco also plans to equip teachers with handheld Palm computing devices so that student data is portable. "Teachers wanted the handhelds because it is often difficult to get parents to come to school," explains program director Bill Fowler. "But when they see parents at Wal-Mart, they can pull out the device and show parents how their child is doing."
Other organizations are also helping rebuild. The Hurricane Education Leadership Program, a consortium of more than sixty companies, government organizations, and foundations (including The George Lucas Educational Foundation), is committed to rebuilding learning environments in the stricken regions. The HELP team will provide hardware, software, training, and support for model K-12 environments that will hopefully be widely replicated.
For now, the money helps heal new wounds. Before the hurricane and Cisco came to town, many students had never touched computers from the most recent generation of devices, says Hattiesburg superintendent Annie Wimbish. Some classrooms had few computers, and those, admits Rowan first-grade teacher Kristen Frierson, didn't always work. Since the first round of technology was installed in January, however, students in Frierson's class have been learning vocabulary with Promethean whiteboards. "It's a lot like a video game, so it is exciting to them," she says.
Wimbish believes the Cisco effort will "really change the way our kids will view and compete in the world" and scoffs at the notion that corporate involvement in public education is a bad idea: "We need corporate money. But corporations will not be taking over public education."
Nancy Rutter Clark, a freelance writer based in Atherton, California, was a resident of New Orleans until August 29, 2005.