UPDATED: 4:57 p.m.:
George Frazier, director of information systems at Lower Merion School District, told Neighbors Main Line that the school district sent out a software patch to students' district-issued laptops. Frazier said the software should correct the web site-blocking issue, but the district won't know for sure until they receive students' feedback on Monday.
Charlie Li, a Lower Merion High School senior, turned himself into a Main Line newsmaker recently when he told local school board members at a public meeting that some educational web sites were blocked on students' district-issued laptops.
The district has said it is addressing the problem.
For Li, it was a step into the spotlight during a high school career that has been spent in classrooms and computer labs, and on a track and on a bicycle. The 17-year-old Li serves as head of the high school council's Technology Committee and is a member of the Lower Merion School District's Technology Advisory Council.
We sat down with Li, an Ardmore resident, to discuss how he balances a full plate of activities, his recent advocacy and planning his future.
Q: You were very vocal when this Internet and technology-related issue occurred earlier this month. Why did you get involved?
Charlie Li: On social media especially, my peers were pretty much doing the equivalent of protesting over the implementation of updated district policies. Back in April, an update to the policy said all restrictions in Policy 134 — which has to do with ... the network in the district and district property — now apply to laptop use.
The Internet filtering previously required opting in if parents were concerned for their children's Internet activity. Currently, everyone has (the filter). I got involved because everyone was angry over this, so I pointed out those two policies to everyone, and spoke up about how it affected us.
Q: What types of websites were blocked?
Li: Say we had a health class project and wanted to use information from a certain website that was blocked. Students are afforded expedited review to get the site unblocked for a limited period of time. The problem was that numerous websites were being blocked that we as students would legitimately use for school, because of a bug in the home filtering implementation, especially for some secure sites that let you browse in https secure mode. If you logged on to a website like Collegeboard.com to try and look at test scores and register for tests, you would get an error.
Q: What was it like speaking up on behalf of your peers? Is public speaking something that comes naturally to you?
Li: I don't really like to talk about the subject of public speaking. If it's for a class project and I know I have to prepare for it on a certain day, then I might get a little bit nervous. But if it's something I really care about, like (the Internet-filtering issue), I don't think about being nervous. If I need to, I just do it.
Q: You're head of your high school's Student Council Technology Committee and the district's Technology Advisory Council. What else is on your extracurricular agenda?
Li: Up until last year I did cross-country for Lower Merion High School. Up until the end of sophomore year, I was on the outdoor track team. I've earned junior varsity in cross-country, and I earned varsity for indoor track, which I still do.
Other than that, I'm a co-founder for a cycling club associated with the bicycle shop, Main Line Cycles, called Velo Aces. We haven't gone on many rides as of yet, but we're still working things out and figuring out how we'll do bigger activities such as races. I bike to school every day and to most places, as long as the weather permits it.
I was also a part of the Technology Student Association when I was a freshman, and I got inducted into the National Honor Society last May. Aside for that, I'm also the webmaster for the Merionite, the high school's student newspaper.
Q:That's an impressive list. How do you manage to balance all of that on top of school?
Li: Seriously, I don't know how I manage it (laughs). It just clicks somehow. It's also a combination of my parents nagging me all the time and learning how students with similar involvements balance it all.
It also helps that this is all of the stuff I like to do for fun. I don't consider partying fun. Personally, fun for me, partying seems like a much bigger waste of time than me trying to dissect video games. What I consider fun is any time I complete a project or a task for something I'm working really hard at.
Q:You're a senior. How are the college applications coming?
Li: So far they are going pretty smooth. I just have to fill the applications out and gather any other necessary materials.
Right now, I have a couple of top picks. One of them is Pitt, the other one is Georgia Tech. I'm also looking at Penn State and Lehigh University - pretty much any school with a decently ranked engineering program, especially in terms of computer engineering, and a cool campus environment.
Q: Where do you see yourself after college graduation?
Li: I have these two passions - engineering - whether it be computer or mechanical - and the other one is my sports side, which is cycling. It could really go either way, whichever one works. I'm really split. I check this list on usacycling.org, which lists college members and organizations, and fortunately all the schools I'm looking into are on that list.
If I do well in cycling, who knows where I could be going. Maybe I could get signed and offered a contract somewhere. I have no idea how much that would be worth or where it would be until I get one. If that doesn't work out, I'd happily be in engineering somehow.
Q: Maybe you could find a way to combine both passions?
Li: That's kind of limited unfortunately, since engineering mostly has to do with frames or gears - and sometimes wheels. Plus, cycling equipment, as a business is an oligopoly so that's another choke point.
Q: How do your parents feel about your future plans?