At some experimental programs in inner-city and rural schools, educators are finding evidence that advanced technology has the potential to put students of different backgrounds on a more equal footing. In these programs, teachers report that many students who use computer networks have shown a new enthusiasm for learning and have improved their test scores.
The Ralph Bunche elementary school in Harlem, education experts say, offers a glimpse of the social potential of computer networks. The school at 123d Street and Amsterdam Avenue is surrounded by the problems of inner-city life. The students wrote in a recent issue of their newspaper not only about a dinosaur project and a spelling bee, but also about guns, gangs and crack.
Yet inside the school, students like DeVernie Winston, a 12-year-old sixth grader, are part of a remarkable example of affirmative action for the information age. He sits at one of the dozens of personal computers that are linked to the Internet web of global networks. Of Koala Bears and Kangaroos
By guiding his computer mouse and tapping keyboard commands, DeVernie retrieves on his screen hurricane weather maps and a textbook history of Azerbaijan for school assignments. For fun, he trades electronic messages with a researcher in Australia, whose descriptions of koala bears and kangaroos have clearly delighted the New York sixth grader.
"You send a message, and people respond," DeVernie said, "telling you things you never knew."
The high-tech setting in Harlem is largely the work of a dedicated group of teachers. Still, the school has benefited from some Federal and corporate grants. Among other donations, the school received a grant from Apple Computer last year for $100,000 worth of computers. And the National Science Foundation is contributing $15,000 a year for a high-speed data line that sends and receives electronic information four times faster than the fastest modems.
"Compared with most schools, our modest data line is the information superhighway," said Paul Reese, a 53-year-old teacher who heads the school’s computer program. Prizes of a ‘Grant Hustler’
Mr. Reese, a self-taught computer expert and confessed “grant hustler,” leads a group of nine teachers in the Bunche computer “mini-school.” The 250 students in the mini-school are selected from volunteers for the program as a representative cross section of the Bunche school’s 650 students, including children with learning disabilities. Mini-school students have scored notably better on standardized math tests and slightly better on reading tests than comparable students in conventional classes.
But, Mr. Reese stressed, the computer-assisted teaching program is not shaped to achieve test-score results and does not emphasize drill work. At Ralph Bunche, teachers and students have tailored their software to help guide students through the on-line labyrinth of the Internet, which can be so bewildering that it has been described as a library without a card catalogue. Digital Whale Sounds
On a recent afternoon, students were seated at machines in Room 409, researching homework, writing reports and sending messages to electronic “pen pals” worldwide. The resource materials on the Internet include the C.I.A. World Fact Book. Recently, for an assignment on whales, a fifth grader was sent digitally coded whales sounds, which he included in his multimedia report.
Georgina Williams, an 11-year-old, and a few friends clustered around a machine equipped with a small camera for video conferencing were enthusiastically trading electronic messages and looking at researchers at Cornell University.
"Look at the excitement with the connection to other people," Mr. Reese said. "And with the network kids can educate themselves, following their own interests." he said. "This technology is simply a tool, but it can be a very powerful tool. My feeling is that it’s going to be increasingly important, and it should be available to everyone, especially kids like ours."
Photo: Computers are being seen as an educational leveler. Georgina Williams, right, worked at her computer at the Ralph Bunche elementary school in Harlem under the srutiny of classmates, Bernice Booker, left, and Valerie Idehen, partly obscured. (Rebecca Cooney for The New York Times)