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August 27, 2012

Computer age reached Oneonta schools in 1980s

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The Daily Star

The Daily Star — I took computer science in college.

Truth be told, computer science took me, instead. Those were in the days of making programs with punch cards at the State University College at Oswego. All I can say is, thank goodness I kept the calendar close at hand to withdraw from the course before the deadline. I really didn’t believe I could get quiz and test scores THAT low.

Not one to give up easily after college, I took another shot at computer programming, as I knew there were good paying jobs out there. I was a radio broadcaster, making wages that were comparable to my old computer science test scores, and looking to do better. Computers were tabletop models by then. Bless my instructor at Broome Community College, Ms. Gannett, as she had a good sense of humor over my lack of computer smarts. She started answering my usual barrage of questions with, “She quit.” Eventually, so did I, never coming remotely close to passing test scores.

I applaud those who possess computer programming smarts. Since the 1980s, computers have become simple enough to use so I can easily get photos and text in each week to The Daily Star, among my other jobs.

It was 30 years ago this autumn that the very first classroom computers were introduced in the Oneonta City School District. The Star reported on Monday, Nov. 22, 1982, that the district spent roughly $9,500 to outfit the junior high school with a computer system. A room near the junior high library was converted into a computer center where students began working with eight small computers in October. The senior high school was planning to open a computer center in early 1983.

“It’s a method of teaching,” math teacher James Milavec said. “We use the computer in our remedial programs as well as teaching the students about computers.”

Helen Kittle, another math teacher, said computers help poor math students. “What they need is repetition and drill. We find that students do better this way than pushing a pencil around.” 

Kittle also said advanced students can find challenging tests on the computer as well.

That autumn roughly 100 students were enrolled in computer courses in the junior high, and that enrollment was due to expand. About 150 were taking part in Milavec’s newly formed computer club.

A few students came to school that year with some computer knowledge and experience. During the summer months while others were out playing baseball or swimming, 38 teenagers from around the state were at Hartwick College at a computer summer camp in July. Three were from the Oneonta area. They learned about computer graphics, programming and other areas of computer science.

“It’s a very draining and enjoyable experience,” said Dr. Ronald Brzenk, director of the camp. “They find the computer is not very forgiving. If you make an error it will tell you so. You have to be prepared to be humbled.”

“You’re going to have to know computers in the future,” said Lauri Fiensod, then 16, of New York City. “It’s a good way to get a good job. It has potential.”

It was reported in the Star in September 1993 that all city schools had computers labs, and the equipment was getting more sophisticated.

Long before these computers were used in Oneonta, it was reported on Monday, Sept. 18, 1967 that data processing had arrived at Oneonta’s public schools, “and administrators are already gloating over savings in money and manpower they see looming over the horizon.”

The new system was rented to handle annual tax billing, payroll, and accounts payable, among other tasks. The system consisted of an “IBM 402 processing machine, a sorter that will select the desired cards from a coded file, and a ‘key punch’ to make new cards for the filing system.” The rental for a school year was $6,000, a cost saving of $1,500 over hiring two data clerks.

This weekend:

Labor tension in Oneonta in 1922.

City Historian Mark Simonson’scolumn appears twice weekly. On Saturdays, his column focuses on the area during the Depression and before. His Monday columns address local history after the Depression. If you have feedback or ideas about the column, write to him at The Daily Star, or e-mail him at simmark@stny.rr.com. His website is www.oneontahistorian.com. His columns can be found at www.thedailystar.com/marksimonson.