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Houston Families Borrow, Buy, Train on Computers for Learning

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Houston--Sisters-in-law Rosa and Sandra Tristan, whose children attend a school that serves a predominantly poor and Mexican-American community here, have joined the computer age.

Unable to afford the purchase of a home computer, the Tristans signed up for the Houston Independent School District's new "Computers Can'' program. After completing 12 hours of training with their husbands and children at their neighborhood school, the two Tristan families were allowed to check out microcomputers and educational software for use in their homes for up to three weeks at a time.

Unlike the Tristans, Houston residents Patty Dreessen and her husband could afford a home computer, but they were not so sure they could keep up with the rising cost of software. Through the school district's "Compu-Buy" program, they not only bought a computer at a substantial discount, but they also obtained a free one-year membership in the school district's software lending library. In addition, they received 12 hours of free training and a word-processing program developed by school officials.

'Home-School Connection'

Responsible for designing, implementing, and promoting these and other programs is a districtwide department of technology, the 33-month-old brain child of officials in the activist administration of Billy R. Reagan, superintendent of schools.

Through its "Computers Can" program for low-income families, and "Compu-Buy" program for all families, the new department of technology is considered the most advanced pioneer of a concept that many argue offers enormous educational promise--the so-called "home-school connection."

The computer, Houston officials argue, can draw parents back into the educational process from the distant position that many educators lament they typically occupy vis a vis their schools. And not only does the Houston program represent a dramatic experiment in changing the relationship between home and school, but it also addresses problems of learning and educational equity that the advent of small computers has posed for schools, the officials say.

The home-school connection, they explain, is vital to ensure that what students learn on their computers at home is compatible with what they learn in school. It is also essential to ensure that a gap does not develop between students whose families can afford computers and those whose families cannot.

Market Figures

Computer-industry officials estimate that for every computer in schools, there are about 10 in homes. By the end of 1983, there were 5.8 million personal computers in American homes, according to Anne Wujcik, director of educational markets for talmis Inc., a market-research firm based in Chicago. By the end of 1984, she said, that figure is expected to reach 11.6 million.

As of last June, Ms. Wujcik said, there were 630,000 microcomputers in public schools and another 120,000 in private schools. The public-school figure, she said, is expected to rise to slightly over a million next year.

This school year, educators are expected to spend about $160 million on educational software, up from $97 million the year before, Ms. Wujcik said.

In comparison, she said, talmis expects sales of about $180 million in educational software for the home this year, up from $94 million last year.

First National Conference

Last June, the National Institute of Education held what its officials said was the first national conference addressing the issues educators face as the number of home computers and purchases of educational software increase.

"Because we have so many minority students, we were obviously very concerned about the equity issue and the imbalance that was developing," Patricia Sturdivant, the associate superintendent in charge of Houston's technology department, told those attending the two-day conference. Minority students, she said, constitute 77 percent of the district's 184,000-student population.

"After 20 years of receiving a great deal of federal money in an effort to equalize this imbalance, we were seeing the very real prospect that it all could get washed out, because as the students in our district who came from middle- and upper-middle-class homes got computers, they were gaining more and more of an advantage over those who did not."

'Computers Can'

To counter that situation, Ms. Sturdivant said, Houston used some of its Chapter 1 funds for economically disadvantaged and low-achievement students to create "Computers Can," a program through which low-income families are encouraged "to participate in the computer revolution."

"We found that parents who were unemployed, who worked in restaurants, who did highway construction, who worked in very menial jobs, were delighted to have the chance to learn about computers and to see how that tool might be used to help their child with academic achievement,'' Ms. Sturdivant said.

"Computers Can," which started as a 24-computer pilot program two years ago, is now established at all 45 of the district's Chapter 1 schools. Ten computers at each school are used for training; 10 others areel5lavailable for lending. The educational software also available for lending focuses on remediation lessons in reading and mathematics.

"I was really skeptical when they said, 'We're going to send Texas Instruments computers home with parents,"' said Karen Johnson, a Chapter 1 coordinator at Houston's Berry Elementary School. "I thought we would send them out and never see them again. But you would be amazed at what good condition they come back in."

This year, almost 8 percent of the district's $12.7-million Chapter 1 budget will be spent on computer programs--$144,324 for "Computers Can" and $862,818 for computer laboratories at Chapter 1 schools, according to Roscette Holmes, director of Chapter 1 programs for the Houston school district. Last year, she said, 8.59 percent of the district's $10.8 million Chapter 1 budget went to computer programs--$316,194 for computer laboratories and $607,963 for "Computers Can."

While the use of Chapter 1 funds to support computer programs is not unusual--and not illegitimate if the program meets the criteria of Chapter 1--there have been no studies to indicate how widespread such spending is, according to John F. Staehle, acting director of compensatory education for the U.S Education Department. "I think it's an ongoing trend. We know there's a lot of interest out there. We know computers are being purchased for the regular school program, so we're not at all surprised that people are thinking about using Chapter 1 funds for computers."

Home Environment 'Crucial'

Besides lessening the gap between students who are exposed to computers at home and those who are not, the "Computers Can" program has had additional benefits, according to those involved in the program.

Parents, Ms. Johnson said, "discovered their children's weaknesses and learned to work with their children, which was new to some of them. For one reason or another, they had felt they didn't need to help their children. Maybe it was because they felt they couldn't help them."

"A lot of times parents don't feel they can help their children," said Louise Cantu, a teacher technologist with the department who formerly taught bilingual education to 5th graders. "They have a language barrier, or they haven't gone to school. This is a way that they saw their children could be helped, but it needed their participation."

"Now," Ms. Johnson said, "parents set up the computer and sit there with their children because we emphasize so greatly that you don't let them just 'play' with the computer. You sit there with them until you're absolutely sure they're started on a program. You may leave them for a few minutes while they work through it, but you stay close by.''

Another advantage of the program, department officials say, is that parents are improving their own basic skills as they also accept responsibility for helping their children with school work at home.

"My husband is Mexican, he speaks nothing but Spanish," said Alice Uribe, a housewife attending a "Computers Can" workshop recently. "When I took the computer home, he was more interested to learn. He didn't know how to spell English words. He couldn't spell small words like 'cat.' That's how he learned. He just started sounding the words out and punching the keys. Then he saw he was starting to learn."

Watching Less Televison

In addition, Houston parents report that their children are watching less television and spending more time on mathematics and reading lessons.

Rosa Tristan said her children used to come home from school at 3 p.m., finish their homework by 3:30 p.m., and then watch television "until 5:30 p.m. or when the cartoons were over."

"But when they have the computers on," she said, "they won't do the homework until they finish fooling around with the computer with the math and reading [programs]. They would do that first and then they would do their homework. They would forget T.V."

Involving parents in their children's education is not new to Houston, Ms. Sturdivant said.

Eight years ago, when the district announced that it was taking steps to abolish social promotion in favor of a system in which students reached minimum benchmarks before advancing to the next grade, "Operation Fail Safe" was launched.

The term, Ms. Sturdivant said, "was coined to communicate to parents that we were trying to develop a support system for children to keep them safe from failure."

Through the "Operation Fail Safe" program, parents were required to attend mandatory conferences at their schools twice a year, she said. "Computer prescriptions" were generated to tell parents how well their children were achieving what was expected of them and what could be done at home to improve that performance.

More than 300 billboards throughout the city carried the "Operation Fail Safe" message, Ms. Sturdivant said, and the media were "innundated" with radio and televi-sion spot announcements.

'Compu-Buy'

District officials made the computer-lending program part of "Operation Fail Safe." After the computer program got underway, school officials decided to establish "Compu-Buy," a second project involving computers that started last December.

In an effort to increase the number of microcomputers in students' homes, the community was invited to take advantage of the school dis-trict's volume-purchase power.

This year, the school district has a contract with Computer Craft, a popular computer chain in Houston, to provide the Apple II family of machines. When parents complete the program's required training, they receive a certificate that allows them to purchase a computer from the store under the "Compu-Buy" program.

That means, for example, that a family can buy an Apple IIe computer--with color monitor and one disk drive--for $1,099, including tax. Computer Craft sells the same system, without tax, for $1,390.

Software Lending Library

An added incentive for parents is one year's free membership in the ''Compu-Buy" library. The yearly membership for the software-lending library, which is open to the public on weekdays and Saturday mornings, is $60.

The library, which has been funded by the school board at $200,000, provides only educational programs that supplement those used in the classroom.

Patty Dreessen is one of the 150 parents who have so far bought their computers through "Compu-Buy." A "big, big plus" of the program, she said, was the lending library.

"Unfortunately, or not unfortunately, depending upon how you look at it, when a child has mastered a particular program, he loses interest and is ready for the next," Mrs. Dreessen said.

"With three children, it would be impossible to keep up with their changing interests and their curios-ity with the cost of software. I'm afraid our computer might sit unused if it were not for this lending library."

Other Community Efforts

In addition to parent-education programs, the technology department also trains volunteers to work in public-school computer laboratories. On the average, 40 participants in the district's vips (Volunteers in Public Schools) program are trained each month. They receive a minimum of eight hours of training.

The department also trains teachers who work at two housing projects in which computers have been bought with Chapter 1 funds through the district's bidding process.

And 10 area churches, which received funds from a local foundation, have purchased 10 to 13 computers each through the department for the education of their parishioners' children. The department has provided 16 hours of training for the approximately 250 volunteers who work in these computer centers.

One of them is Willie Grant, a parent and parishioner at the city's Mount Sinai Baptist Church.

"Teachers are supposed to teach," she said after a recent training session, "but evidently some students need more attention than what they get during the run of the day."

She continued, "By having these centers set up, we as parents and volunteers can bridge that gap by giving students the individualized attention they cannot always get at school."

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