Life in the slow lane

The Information Age meets the technological Stone Age at Dallas schools

It's a long way to the 21st century when you're trying to get there with a 286 personal computer, a clicking, grinding beast consigned to obsolescence sometime in the late 1980s.

A 286 is too slow to support Microsoft Windows, the operating system that's become the universal standard. And because it won't run Windows, it's practically impossible to access the Internet on a 286.

But that's what Bryan Adams High School--with its 2,200 students--is using in some of its computer labs: ancient 286s, for which a man named Travis Washington scavenges and stockpiles parts in his little storeroom in the old Procter & Gamble building in South Dallas.

Washington is a soldier fighting a holding action while DISD's leaders struggle to come up with a plan--and money--to bring all of the district's classroom computers into the 1990s. So far, they have the plan, but finding money and donations to finance it is still a distant dream.

So Washington and his team of technicians scrounge.
Finding a hard drive for a 286 is like combing junkyards for an orange right fender on an AMC Hornet. No one stocks the parts anymore, and the car was so doggone ugly that most folks opted to leave it at the side of the road when it broke down.

A 286 in 1998 isn't much different. Yet Washington is proud of his stash of puny 20-meg hard drives; he'd love to get rid of those 286s, but that's not the worst of his problems.

He admits with a gasp that some DISD schools still have XTs and Commodores, computers from the technological equivalent of the Mesozoic Age.

And he's only got seven technicians including himself to troubleshoot among the district's 215 schools.

And one woman who begs corporations to donate their old computer systems.
And a slug-like, 2400-baud modem to link up to Apple Computer's Austin warehouse.

No wonder Washington, senior analyst for DISD's Technology Network Services, frequently resorts to motivational aphorisms and battlefield metaphors when he talks about his efforts to keep the district's computers running.

"You have to have a philosophy that there's always a way," he says. "Everything is focused on getting the job done. There are no egos here."

Each morning at 7:30, Washington gathers his technicians like beat walkers in a cop show, hands out "trouble tickets"--repair orders for classroom computers--and dispatches his staff throughout the district. Many routine problems are handled by the school's "teacher-technologists," who earn a bounty of $1,500 a year to do double duty as computer technicians.

But all of the tough problems land in Washington's instructional desktop support department. (A separate department handles administrators' computers.) A typical day's workload for one of his technicians might be 10 trouble tickets at two schools, as well as a follow-up visit to a site where new computers have been installed.

New schools get new computers. But the older schools attempt to prepare their students for the Information Age on a hodgepodge of computers ancient, recent, and new. Some come from corporate donors, which pass on their old equipment when they upgrade. The burden of testing and culling this donated equipment falls on the same seven technicians who maintain the existing systems.

Washington says he's dedicated to working for DISD, though when he spoke to the Dallas Observer, a ripple of anxiety was moving through his department because of press reports on the district's cash crisis. Washington used to work for Mitsubishi Electronics, and took an "enormous" pay cut to come to DISD when the company moved its Carrollton plant out of state. He now makes $37,482 a year and is resolutely discreet when asked to compare his work in the private sector with his experiences in the Dallas public schools. Even so, you get the picture that he has toiled amid some enormous handicaps.

When he joined the district six years ago, he inherited an underpaid work force frequently demoralized by the whims of DISD bureaucrats. While administrators wasted their time on politics, the district slid backward in its technological capabilities.

No one had an overall design for getting more and better computers into the labs and classrooms. Typical of DISD's scattered approach was its decision a few years ago to sign a huge computer-supply contract with Compaq, then fail to train any of the district's technicians in Compaq technology.

Washington was forced to adopt a Band-Aid strategy--fixing problems as they arose and trying to foster teamwork among a group of technicians who, after a year or two paying dues, could easily find more lucrative work outside the district. (Pay for DISD's technicians starts at $10 an hour.)

These days, Washington's efforts to keep things running are nearly heroic. He and his technicians often work 10-hour days, and Washington frequently comes in Saturdays to remedy disasters--like when lightning wipes out 10 computers in one school. "Just because we're short-handed, that's not an excuse," he says. "If you ask, could we use additional help, I'd say yes."

Last year, things began to look up when Lee Allen--who came to Dallas from Santa Fe, New Mexico--took over as the district's assistant superintendent for technology services. Washington and his colleagues give Allen unreserved praise for attempting to pull the district out of its game of perpetual catch-up. He's lined up training for Washington's technicians, surveyed the schools to get some sense of what computers are out there, and has put together DISD's first overall technology plan, designed to push the district's schools closer to national standards.

While DISD now has one computer for every 12 students, Allen wants to provide one for every three. He also wants to place a full-time technician in every school and find a way to pay competitive wages.

His plan has a few built-in problems. One school board member who voted against it earlier this year, Don Venable, describes it as "one of these unfortunate projects that's two years behind the curve." His main objection, though, is that it's only a blueprint--no money is attached to it.

"It's absolutely necessary to have a technology plan--but give us the details," Venable says. "The board is supposed to be involved in appropriations, not speculations."

Allen hopes to put the plan in place by winning grants and soliciting donations. That's where Kate Thompson comes in. In addition to her other duties--such as fielding work orders for broken copy machines--she tries to persuade government agencies and corporations to turn over their used computers. Anything at or above a 486 66 MHz or a Macintosh LCII is considered a prize.

Among other trouble spots, she's working on upgrading the computer labs in DISD's high schools.

At Bryan Adams, that would mean a lot. A stash of 486s, after all, would catapult the computer lab into the early 1990s--and allow students to run Windows.

Says Allen: "It's obvious: Our students need to be prepared for the kind of job markets they will encounter."

Kate Thompson is accepting donations of new and used computers at (214) 989-8083.

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