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At One Texas School, Wired Is a Way of Life

James Apel and Jos Castellon are giving an unusual tour of the Institute for Texas Cultures in San Antonio. Unusual, because they are sitting in front of a computer at their high school in Austin.

"The museum asked us to create an interactive Web site that would let people find out why there are not as many Indian tribes left in Texas," says Jos, a senior at Travis High School. His classmate James clicks on the screen, giving a 360-degree video view of the the main museum hall. Then he stops and zooms in on a portrait of Cynthia Ann Parker, mother of the Comanche chief Quanah Parker. "They sent us the text," Jos continues, "and we had to summarize it and adapt it and get to the point."

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For those who haven't guessed already, this is the latest sign that today's high school experience just isn't the same old bag of books. At Travis High School, students create Web sites and educational CD-ROMs. Their classroom is a darkened room full of state-of-the-art Macintoshes, crammed with the same animation software used in the sci-fi movie "The Terminator." And their teacher is Keith Rutledge, a self-taught computer nerd with a vision of what helps kids learn, and what they need to know in the high-tech job market.

"We've got everything from special-ed kids to valedictorians," says Mr. Rutledge. "Sometimes, with computers, we can reach students who learn in different ways."

Rutledge's high-tech high school classes are a window into how much schools have embraced the Silicon Era. Chalkboards still exist, to be sure, and students still read and write on paper. But the 1990s will probably be remembered more as a decade when computers became a tool of choice for teaching and learning. Whether students learn as much - or as well - in front of a glowing monitor remains to be seen. But given their popularity among politicians and especially parents, computers will likely stay in the classroom, no matter what.

"You can't make a bad teacher with technology, but you can help make a good teacher do more with technology," says George Brackett, a lecturer at Harvard Graduate School of Education in Cambridge, Mass., and a high-tech adviser to a Boston-area high school. "The focus should not be on technology, but on the pursuit of relevant goals in children's education. To the extent that technology makes that possible, that's great."

Tony Cipollone, director of evaluation at the Annie E. Casey Foundation in Baltimore, agrees. "Clearly, computers not only connect kids to the material, but they open doors to kids' diverse talents," But he points out that while computers are important, so are maintaining things like school buildings, teacher development, and high standards of learning. "In a tight budget, it's hard to keep all those goals on track."

For his part, Keith Rutledge is no ideologue when it comes to computer education. Some techniques and methods are better than others, he says, and some computer-led learning programs are the educational equivalent of bubble gum.

"There's no benefit at all if it's done in the old drill-and-practice way, just pop a CD in and claim it's multimedia," Rutledge says. "But if it's done right, where students are the knowledge generators, where they are using computers to research a topic and programming it to help teach others, then it's extremely effective as a learning tool and a good use of money."

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In some ways, Rutledge is a model of the enthusiastic, sacrificing teacher. In 1994, he attended a local software conference and asked industry insiders what technology they used and what skills they wanted in their employees. He then compiled their responses into a lesson plan, and the resulting curriculum won him the 1995 Christa McAuliffe teachers award; his curriculum has since been adopted by the state as the standard for other schools to match.

Some teachers would have funneled their prize money into a well-earned trip to the Bahamas. Rutledge used his $34,000 award to buy more computers for the classroom, and set up a foundation to raise $70,000 more.

Visit Rutledge's classroom, and you might think you had wandered into the special-effects department at a major movie studio. At one computer, Greg Villareal is showing off a CD-ROM program he produced that looks like a flight scene from "Top Gun." Across the room, Eric Wargo has induced a computer-animated skeleton to dance. Another group is putting the final touches on "Shoot the Raven," a computer game they created as part of an educational CD-ROM on the poetry of Edgar Allan Poe. Nearly every computer is in use, an interesting fact given that this is lunchtime.

The mood is frenetic and loose, but it's not all fun and games. Ivonne Pham and Louisa Segura-Robles have spent the past semester visiting a nearby elementary school to teach fourth- and fifth-graders how to create their own CD-ROM disks with a program called Hyperstudio. "They pick it up really fast," says Ivonne, who plans to study computer science at the University of Texas in Austin next year. "The other day, we were having problems getting one of the programs to work and this little boy comes up to me and says, 'That's easy.' He just solved it."

For Rutledge, that's the magic of computers in education. "I've been offered to form a company," he says with a shrug. "But I stay because I like what I'm doing. These are great kids, and I enjoy seeing what the kids are doing, because they're doing stuff that isn't happening in but a few places in the country."

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