BUCKTOWN - State Education Secretary Eugene W. Hickok visited the Owen J. Roberts School District Wednesday to deliver some good news - the local school district is one of just six in Pennsylvania's 501 districts to be named a finalist in the state's competition to become the nation's first two Digital School Districts.Gov. Ridge's $5 million initiative will transform two Pennsylvania school districts into 21st century education centers that incorporate technology into every aspect of learning, dramatically improving the way children learn.

Besides Owen J. Roberts, the districts named as finalists are Carlisle School District, Cumberland County; Franklin Regional School District, Westmoreland County; Hatboro-Horsham School District, Montgomery County; Quaker Valley School District, Allegheny County; and Spring Cove School District, Blair County. Secretary Hickok visited each district Wednesday to congratulate students, parents, teachers and administrators on their selection.

"An international panel of technology and education experts selected these six school districts from among 30 innovative proposals to redefine education in Pennsylvania," Hickok said.

"These school districts and their communities seek to become a part of history as they continue to compete for the extraordinary opportunity to help invent the future of education - right here in Pennsylvania. Their hard work will make them models for the nation."

Arriving to a rousing round of applause from a large group of students, district faculty, administrators and school board members, Hickock said the honor is especially notable because district entries - written visions of how the schools would use new technology to reach out to the community as well as students - was conferred on the finalists by a panel of judges made up of experts from around the world.

"A lot of folks are watching you and a lot of people are learning from what you are doing, so you should be proud and pleased," Hickock told Superintendent Terrance Furin and the audience, which also included local legislators Rep. Timothy Hennessey and Sen. James Gerlach.

"The idea is that Owen J. Roberts can touch the lives of students teachers and parents all over the world," Hickock said.

Gov. Ridge kicked off the statewide competition in September by asking Pennsylvania school districts, colleges, universities and other community resources to work together to create innovative proposals that describe how they would use technology to improve education for students.

Seventy-seven school districts statewide submitted proposals in the first round of the Digital School Districts competition. Applicants described their vision to use technology to reinvent education, bridge the "digital divide" and offer lifelong learning opportunities to all Pennsylvanians.

In November, 30 school districts, including Owen J. Roberts, advanced to the second round, where they submitted detailed blueprints of their proposed Digital School Districts. These blueprints included specific plans for technology, professional development, implementation, bridging the "Digital Divide," community involvement and support, project teams, budget and evaluation.Competitors also were required to specify how their Digital School Districts will serve as 21st century educational models for other schools.

"All of the proposals submitted were so innovative and well-planned that schools needed nearly perfect scores in almost every category to advance to this final round," said Hickok."This is a testament to the tremendous effort put forth by all of our competing school districts. They all should be proud."

Students, parents, teachers and administrators from the finalist school districts will travel to Harrisburg on Jan. 16 and Jan. 17 to present their plans to the expert panel. The panelists will judge each presentation and select the two schools that will become Pennsylvania's first Digital School Districts.

Some of the ideas proposed by the six finalists include educational and training programs available to students, teachers and the community 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year; customized lesson plans for every student; and constant access by parents to academic information about their children, such as attendance, course selections, schedules and grades.

"The hard work of all our applicants will benefit their students for years to come," Hickok said."I encourage all those who have worked tirelessly on their proposals throughout this competition to continue on their path toward making their innovative ideas a reality."

Schools in the two Digital School Districts will become high-tech models for educators, administrators and communities statewide to learn how to use technology to improve education.Others will be able to visit these schools to see how they use technology effectively; to talk with staff members and students about their experiences; and to discuss ways to use technology to improve education in their own schools.

The two districts will maintain a Web site that documents each step of their dramatic transformation, recording the successes they achieve and the challenges they encounter.Each district will have a higher-education partner to evaluate the impact of technology on student achievement and school efficiency.

The Ridge administration also is seeking partnerships with high-tech companies to provide the two Digital School Districts with donated products and services.

Gov. Ridge has spearheaded several initiatives to use technology to expand educational opportunities for Pennsylvania students, parents, teachers and communities, including his nationally acclaimed education-technology program, "Link-to-Learn."

"Link-to-Learn" is Gov. Ridge's multi-year initiative aimed at expanding the use of technology in the classroom, including new and upgraded computers for schools and technology training for teachers.Since 1996, Gov. Ridge has invested more than $200 million in education technology, including investments in "Link-to-Learn," which in 1998 was named one of the nation's premier education-technology programs by the Washington, D.C.-based Progress and Freedom Foundation.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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