Day-school students hook up to high tech

This year, students at Sunnyvale's South Peninsula Hebrew Day School will be learning a lot less about the Dewey Decimal System and much more about working the Internet.

The Silicon Valley school is leaping into the '90s, thanks to a new computer center that was unveiled at a picnic Sunday, Aug. 27 — the day before school began.

All the school's fifth-through-eighth-grade students will now have their own Internet home pages and e-mail addresses. They will even link up with e-mail penpals at a similar school in Jerusalem. And they will cull research from cyberspace on topics from Hebrew to frog dissection.

As the kids got their first look at the center last week, most of them clearly weren't strangers to hardware.

In fact, according to computer studies director Rabbi Yossi Ohana, about 85 percent of the school's students use computers at home. After all, many of the parents work in the high-tech industry. They are a diverse group: 42 percent Israeli, 42 percent American, and the remainder largely former Soviets and Iranians.

Now the parents will get what they've been asking for: a computer component to their children's education. Eric Benhamou, who heads the prominent data-networking company 3COM, donated $150,000 to help the school purchase 13 computers, nine CD-ROMS, a large-screen television and software. The Santa Clara County Office of Education is providing the Internet connection, making the day school the first private institution to receive this service. Benhamou's company helped set up the school's network as well as its Internet connection.

"This is [part of] a growing movement throughout the country to improve education through the intelligent use of technology," said Benhamou.

Benhamou and his wife, Illeana, who live in Saratoga, say they have strong ties to the day school, even though their sons Ori, 15, and Emmanuel, 13, are no longer students there. The Benhamous say they worry because Jewish day schools often don't have the resources to teach computer skills at an advanced level.

"Kids with no chance to get up to speed on this new medium will be the have-nots," said Benhamou.

This summer, the faculty became the haves. One-third of the school's teachers attended computer courses enabling them to teach classes on topics such as the Internet, HyperStudio, PowerPoint and computer research.

One project Ohana is planning for this year is something he calls "3,000 years and one click." Students will download material on Jerusalem's trimillennial celebration from Hebrew University and other sources.

It's not just the older children who will be using the computer center. In fact, kindergartners through fourth-graders will use the facility at least twice a week: once for general studies and once for Judaic studies. The older students will work on the computers at least three times a week, learning computer skills and studying math, science, language and social studies.

Nine-year-old Sheila Solyman sat at one of the new computers playing electronic solitaire. Amid the crowd gathered to get a first glimpse at the high-tech facility, Solyman sat with quiet concentration.

"I like to play games, and sometimes I do reports," said Solyman, clicking on a graphic queen of hearts.

It's not just game time. Parent volunteers and faculty are designing a curriculum that will guide the school's 320 students toward research and networking designed to enhance classroom learning.

Volunteer and past board president Morey Schapira — one of many parents and volunteers who helped set up the computer center this summer –stressed that the computers are meant to be used in conjunction with human teaching.

"This is a tool," said Schapira. "It must be funneled through an educator, or it's useless."