Technology Integration

Freedom of Information: How a Wisconsin School District Ditched Internet Filters

The director of information systems of the Racine Unified School District is making a revolutionary move: he removed the firewalls that had blocked students from many parts of the Internet. Bold progress or brash mistake?

July 5, 2010

Among the more memorable people I met at last week's ISTE conference in Denver is a renegade technology director from Racine, Wisconsin. Just a few months after his promotion from network manager to director of information systems of the Racine Unified School District last summer, Tim Peltz made a revolutionary move: he removed the firewalls that had blocked students from many parts of the Internet. He didn't just remove a brick here and there. He tore those walls completely down.

In a back-to-school letter to faculty and staff, Peltz announced that students could now access almost all websites, online chats and discussion boards, streaming video, Skype, and Web-based e-mail services like Gmail. He even opened up the two sites that seem to scare the pants off many school administrators - Facebook and YouTube. The only content blocked was "adult" (sexual) sites and what Peltz calls "hardcore extreme views," such as the websites of violent gangs. Students had to log in each time they used a school computer, so administrators could identify anyone who misbehaved online.

"I got a lot of resistance," Peltz said when we met in Denver. "But I held my ground." (Though he did restrict YouTube access only to teachers after some elementary students got into what he describes as "PG-13" videos.) It helped that he had the support of the district's director of curriculum and instruction, Jeff Weiss.

Peltz is passionate about teaching with technology and opening Web access because he believes it's (a) a powerful way to engage students, and (b) the only way to teach kids how to safely and productively use technologies that they will use -- and misuse -- whether the school restricts them or not. (Case in point: one Racine high school student last year made a video of a fight and posted it to YouTube using his cell phone -- no school Internet access needed.)

"The Internet is a right, whereas previously it was seen as a privilege," said Peltz, who is 33 and has two young daughters. "If you take the Internet away, it's kind of like saying, 'You can't have this textbook.'"

(Want to hear a student's take on Internet filters? Jon-Michael Poff, a high school student from Arkansas, wrote this plea for free access in the pages of Edutopia.)

Peltz's new M.O. wasn't fully tested last year, however, because Racine's aging fleet of computers, loaded with a frustrating hodgepodge of platforms and operating systems, couldn't handle much of what the newly-open Internet offered. The Web was mainly used by tech-savvy teachers who didn't need much guidance on how to navigate it well.

This summer, though, Peltz pulled off a bit of a tech-funding coup. By consolidating the technology budgets of about a dozen "funding silos" (such as Title I, special education, English-language learners, subject-area adoptions, and building services) into a single technology line item, he's replacing the district's 6,500 old machines with 8,000 leased, new computers, all with the same operating system. And that's saving Racine $400,000 compared to last year. Not to mention the estimated $200,000 in energy cost savings from switching to newer machines. Yep - you read that right.

So when school starts this fall, open access to the Internet will be a reality in every classroom (including YouTube access for students).

"You're not scared?" I asked him. "Not even a little bit?"

He shook his head. "I'll take the heat," he said. "I'm ready for it."

Still, I get the feeling Racine's road ahead may be bumpy. "We're behind the curve on training," Peltz admitted. A key piece of the transformation -- training teachers how to teach students to use the Web safely, smartly and respectfully -- still hasn't been planned. A committee including teachers, administrators and a school attorney is meeting this summer to craft a policy governing students' Internet use and the consequences for misbehavior.

Most districts are especially cautious about Web access because they fear losing their federal E-rate telecommunications discount if they violate the Children's Internet Protection Act (CIPA), Peltz said. Peltz's take: "I feel that if teachers and staff are showing the kids how to use the technology in an appropriate, productive manner, we'll be in compliance."

That's a heretical notion by today's standards of school Internet filtering. But I'm betting that it's Galileo-style heresy; with proper teacher training in place, a few years from now people like Peltz will be seen as prescient.

What do you think? Bold progress or brash mistake? Have you had any successes or lessons learned that you'd share?

-- Grace Rubenstein, is a senior producer at Edutopia

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