Big Surf In A Little School

On the third day of school in Stoddard, N.H., 8-year-old Justin Holland, meteorologist for the week, makes a prediction: "It's going to rain. Guaranteed. I saw it on the news." His teacher Maggie Sergeant isn't sure. "Why don't we check out the weather map on the computer?" And so, for the first time that morning, the Information Age struggles to make its way through the woods of rural New England and into the three-room James Faulkner Elementary School (just 48 students in kindergarten through fifth grade).

Step One: while her students, 17 second and third graders, write in their journals, Sergeant sits down at one of the two computers in the corner of her classroom and tries to access the Web site of a local TV station, WMUR in Manchester. A minute or so later, she gets an error message ("Netscape is unable to locate..."). She tries again. Another minute passes; another error message. Sergeant sighs. She's pretty sure the culprit is the modem attached to the school's server in the combination library/office across the hall. "I spend a lot of time making sure it's working," she says.

Step Two: Sergeant crosses the corridor and jiggles the modem so it's at just the right angle--a technique she's clearly perfected over many months. After about a minute, she returns to her classroom.

Step Three: back in the computer corner, Sergeant gets the WMUR site and pulls up a map showing Hurricane Dennis menacing the Carolinas. White spots hover over the entire East Coast--including New Hampshire. She calls up the kids in groups of four. "What is that white area?" she asks. One boy guesses: "Clouds?" "That's right," she says. "And what do we think of Justin's prediction?" Jeremy Jarest is convinced: "It's going to rain."

The kids' enthusiasm is Sergeant's reward. Later in the afternoon, after the school bus has left, she smiles as she recalls their faces as they studied the weather pictures. "They were so into that map," she says. "That's what I like..."

According to a recent Department of Education survey, 51 percent of American classrooms had Internet connections last year, opening up a world of information beyond encyclopedias and battered library books. Even in tiny Stoddard (population "around 700," says town clerk Joan Read), the Net is as much a classroom fixture as the blackboard or the two gerbils, Max and Million. "It's another tool," says Sergeant. "To use or not use it depends on what you need to do." But while big districts have technology departments and megabudgets dedicated to making sure that all their connections work, Stoddard just has 30-year-old Maggie Sergeant, whose position as "technology guru" is strictly voluntary. Her budget for this year is all of $2,000--"not much," she concedes, but still higher than last year's $1,500. It's not enough to pay for a cable connection, which would mean an end to that pesky modem (the companies Sergeant sought estimates from wanted close to $3,000). And it's not enough to pay someone to network the school's nine computers so they can share the Internet connection and a color laser printer. That's why Sergeant and her husband, Warren (fortunately, a computer programmer), spent more than 110 hours over the last two summers networking the school, snaking wires through the walls and ceilings. "It was either that," she says, "or no Internet."

Not much of a choice, in Sergeant's view. After fifth grade, Stoddard kids are bused to middle school and high school in Keene, about half an hour away down Route 123. There, they have to compete with students who get computer instruction starting in first grade. Sergeant and her principal, Mark LaFleur (who also doubles as the fourth- and fifth-grade teacher), don't want their students to be at a disadvantage. They also need the tremendous resources available online, especially critical in a rural area. This year, for example, LaFleur's class will study Egypt and the Pyramids. He spent his summer creating an elegant Web page with links to Egyptology sites around the world and space for kids to post projects.

The teachers have their own reasons to be connected. In a small school, there's not much chance to exchange ideas with other teachers. Mailing lists and bulletin boards fill that need nicely for Sergeant, LaFleur and Nancy Kowalski, the kindergarten and first-grade teacher. Putting the school online also helps them keep in touch with parents (60 percent own computers, according to a survey Sergeant conducted last year). Sergeant has created a Web site for the school where she posts spelling lists, homework and helpful links.

When Sergeant first came to Stoddard in February 1997, it was the fulfillment of a dream. "I always wanted to teach in a one-room schoolhouse," she says. "This was the closest thing around here." She loved Stoddard, but was concerned about the lack of computers. Apple IIe's, some older than the students, ran outdated software.

Unlike many teachers, Sergeant is not intimidated by technology. She says she's been "hooked" on computers since seventh grade. But she knew that interest alone wasn't enough to bring Stoddard up to date. In early 1998, LaFleur encouraged her to enroll in an innovative program offering a Master of Arts in teaching with Internet technologies at Marlboro College, an hour away in Vermont. Much of the classwork was, appropriately enough, online--through discussion groups, e-mail and Internet research. The students met at the college only a few days a month. It was costly: close to $18,000 out of her own pocket for tuition and books.

But to Sergeant, it was worth the sacrifice. She's the kind of teacher who goes all out for her students, even planning her wardrobe to keep their attention. Her earrings: a boy dangling from one ear, a girl from the other. The barrette that holds her blond hair back is a frieze of animals; her vest is decorated with blocks and books. Kids check out titles from the classroom library (called Pooh's Corner after her favorite character), using a program her husband created. She buys all the books herself, about 100 a year. In addition to using computers as a source of information, students get time to work on their own with educational software she's selected. Later, when they study pioneers, she plans to hook them up with an online version of the popular Oregon Trail program linking kids around the country. "For most of them," Sergeant says, "Keene is the largest city they know." But like all kids, they want to know more. "So many times," says Sergeant, "they have questions I can't answer. Now I can say, 'I don't know the answer but I know where to go'." If only that modem would behave.