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Netscape mogul gets it right

It ain't easy to melt my bitter, cold heart. But when it happens, it often involves helping poor people and minorities in my home state.

I'll spare you the details of my own escape from a Mississippi trailer park, but suffice it to say, I understand that "the Magnolia State" often brings up the rear in about everything: good jobs, reading levels, reputation, fashion sense. That's why it warmed my cockles when I heard this week that former Netscape President James Barksdale and his wife, Sally Barksdale, is giving my home state $100 million -- and no, not to promote a particular browser or operating system, but to help kids in Mississippi learn to read.

This appeals for several reasons: Barksdale isn't forgetting where he came from (which many of us do too often); he isn't requiring schools to be loyal to Microsoft or Apple (or Netscape, it seems); and -- most vitally -- he is recognizing that kids need to walk before they can surf or program themselves into riches.

Also, this week, Microsoft and Intel announced they are giving millions to help train teachers to use technology. That's cool, too: Often, shiny new computers show up at schools, whether purchased with tax dollars or donated by corporations, and they sit in the corner gathering dust because teachers aren't sure how to use them efficiently.

Yet the Barksdale donation is the one that makes me all gooey. Why? Well, because he's just a guy. Yes, he's a very rich guy, and he got that way off Silicon Valley innovation and luck. And, undoubtedly, someone worth half-a-billion-plus could use some hefty tax deductions. But he didn't have to target it to a bunch of poor kids in the state most people love to pick on the most. ("Yeah, I drove through Mississippi one time, and I was afraid to stop. Yuck, yuck," utters every non-Southern man at least one time during his lifetime.)

But you get the feeling that the Barksdales just want to spend all those riches well -- and while they're around to witness the benefits of their largesse. "When we die, if there's a dollar left, it's because I've miscalculated," he told The New York Times. Wow.

You have to love the emphasis on reading -- not surfing, not programming, not math or science this time. Reading. It's enough to make one think. I, for one, am one of those technology converts -- or a realist, I like to say -- who believe wholeheartedly that all kids need equal access to technology: hardware, software and the Internet. I believe technology is a tool, just like a pencil, that will help kids assure a better economic future for themselves and their families. I loathe the digital divide in all its ugly forms.

However, we all should be reminded occasionally that kids who cannot read will not be able to put technology to good use. It must go hand in hand: Kids need technology to facilitate interest in learning to help them learn to read and reason -- but they need to be able to read. The point of the Barksdales' donation is to help elementary schools buy software, books and other materials for kindergarten through third grade.

I like that balance. Here is a man who made his fortune off technology who, in turn, is trying to get kids back to basics. He's not whining that kids should learn the three R's first and worry about technology later. And he isn't saying that computers take the place of basic book learning.

The National Assessment of Educational Progress released a study last September that shows only 23 percent of fourth-graders can write proficiently. It concluded that kids need to proudly display their work in portfolios, be taught they don't have to be perfect from the start (that's called writing several drafts in my business), and talk to parents and teachers about what they're studying. And they need access to reading materials at home -- newspapers, magazines, encyclopedias and books, as well as computers.

Like Jim and Sally Barksdale, we all must remember that kids need a balanced array of tools -- and help them get them however we can. That's called a legacy.

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