Special Report

Projects Offer Access, Training

By Andrew Trotter — May 10, 2001 11 min read
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In some of Chicago’s toughest neighborhoods, professional artists are showing urban youngsters how to use technology to express themselves through video and Web art. In Massachusetts, a special digital-divide project is harnessing the powers of the World Wide Web to help teachers find lessons linked to state academic standards. Meanwhile, in Charlotte, N.C., community activists are providing public school students with special computer training after school.

There are more than 20,000 projects under way across the country aimed at bridging the digital divide, according to the Washington-based Benton Foundation, a nonprofit group working to close the digital divide. To be sure, it would be impossible to tell the stories of all of them. But, according to education technology experts, some projects stand out from the pack. Here is a small sampling—just six—that experts identified as being particularly effective.

Powering Up Technology

In little more than a year, Powerup—a national organization that offers computer access and training to youngsters in impoverished neighborhoods and schools—has expanded from four to 300 sites.

“It’s not a demo, it’s a rollout,” says Rae K. Grad, the chief executive officer of the nonprofit organization, which was established by the family foundations of Steve Case, the founder of America Online Inc. and now Chairman of aol/Time Warner, and Ted Waite, the chairman and ceo of Gateway Computer Inc., along with several other corporations and nonprofit groups.

Powerup’s concept is to create a package of technology equipment, infrastructure, and training that could be provided to local agencies that are experienced in serving poor communities.

In January, the national program, based in McLean, Va., launched its largest state-level partnership, with Florida. A Florida coalition, including the governor’s office, will set up 24 Powerup sites this year with computers, Internet access, trained adult mentors, and other program features for 6- to 18-year-olds in urban areas of the state.

Most Powerup sites are at ymcas, Boys & Girls Clubs, and centers run by the National Urban League and similar groups. Some sites are in schools that provide after-school programs financed by grants under the 21st Century Community Learning Centers program of the U.S. Department of Education.

The Powerup program gives local partners a standard set of resources: computers, staff training, access to a Web portal, and PowerBars snacks. Some call that arrangement the “McDonald’s approach” to the digital divide.

But Grad says that label “overemphasizes the sameness and underemphasizes the community uniqueness” of the sites.

For more information, visit the Web site, www.powerup.org/.

Massachusetts Movement

Effective small-scale programs are vital to delivering technology services to poor communities, but those efforts go further when a large-scale organizational structure gives them access to money, technology, political clout, and expertise. The Mass Networks Education Partnership has been a vital part in just such a structure in Massachusetts over the past five years. The nonprofit partnership, founded in 1996 as a NetDay project to mobilize volunteers to help wire Massachusetts schools—especially in low- income areas in Boston and the state’s rural northwest—has evolved quickly.

“I call [NetDay] half of a good idea,” says Steven E. Miller, the partnership’s executive director, referring to the volunteer efforts to wire schools to the Internet. The original “NetDays” had too little involvement by nontechnology companies, not enough input from educators, and little or no attention to professional development, he says.

On the other hand, Miller says the Massachusetts partnership, which includes education, business, government, and labor-union groups, has focused joint strategic planning on those deeper elements of promoting change.

“We look for good ideas and turn them into movements,” Miller says, adding that working from both “the bottom up and the top down” is required.

The group campaigned for public support for giving teachers Internet access from their homes for just $25 a year for each teacher. So far, 27, 000 of the state’s 80,000 teachers have signed up.

The partnership has also helped develop the state’s latest high-tech school resource: a free Virtual Education Space for public school teachers, students, and their parents.

Ves, a Web service operated by a state-owned and -financed nonprofit corporation, provides templates to let teachers and schools create educational Web sites tailored to their specific needs. Eventually, students and their families will be able to create educational Web sites, too.

The partnership, in addition to promoting ves, helped create its core feature: a database tool to help teachers align their lesson plans to state standards.

The tool was the invention of a district curriculum expert, who found, at a partnership-hosted meeting, that educators around the state were hungry for such an aid. With help from the partnership, an upgraded, Web-ready version of the database tool will soon be available on the ves service, offered free to school districts throughout the state, Miller says.

Go to massnetworks.org for more information.

A Community of Artists

At Chicago’s Street-Level Youth Media centers, young people often use multimedia technologies to express the painful realities of urban life.

“They’ll say one of their friends has been shot—they’ll do a video project on that,” says Mark Diaz, a sculptor and video artist who is one of the five co-directors of the organization, which runs three community centers in Chicago.

The centers, serving 8- to 22-year-olds, are in places where both art and technology are scarce, says Diaz.

One center is in the city’s old armory building in the Park District; another is in a Hispanic community on the western edge of the city.

The third, a storefront center, is in a South Side, predominantly African- American neighborhood “where …windows have plywood over them, and you have to walk quite a while to find a business that’s open,” says Norris Dickard, who during the Clinton administration was the U.S. Department of Education’s in-house expert on community technology centers. Clinton visited the project last year.

But the center in that neighborhood shines as “one of the most successful of its kind,” Dickard says.

Street-Level Youth Media’s staff of 14 artists, many from the University of Chicago, serve as mentors to the children and adolescents who drop in to create individual or group projects using video cameras, software, and other tools. Some staff members conduct 10- or 15-week video-training programs in local schools.

The organization was formed in 1995 out of a merger between a community media lab and a center that was established as neutral ground for rival youth gangs. About 1,500 young people are being served by the centers this year.

Diaz says the organization thrives by having its leadership divided among five directors. “We have more of a net to spread out,” he explains. “We don’t believe one person can absolutely weave everything together.”

Another strength is the group’s broad base of financial support: Forty percent of its $1 million budget for 2001 is from a half-dozen foundations, and 60 percent from a mix of government agencies, including the Chicago mayor’s office.

For more information, visit the Web site,www. street-level.org.

Loans for Home Computers

A lively debate among digital-learning advocates concerns whether it’s best to focus on deploying computers and Internet access in the homes of poor families or in community centers.

“If you had to go to the library and read a book, and you left the book at the library, how much can you really learn?” says Steve D. Berry, the director of Riverside Community Online in Riverside, Calif.

His group differs from organizations that provide donated older computers. The Riverside Computer Investment Program provides subsidized loans so families can buy computers that are new and powerful.

“People feel better about themselves when they’re actually paying a part of it,” Berry says.

A family pays $684 for its computer—which includes all fees, interest, taxes, and a one-year warranty—financed with a loan payable in 36 monthly payments of $19. The loans, extended without a credit check by a local credit union, are arranged over the phone and require no down payment.

The computers are multimedia PCs with speedy Intel processors, memory, data storage, modem, and color jet printer that are up to today’s standard for home or small-business use. The families also receive software that includes Microsoft Works and Word and free dial-up Internet access and bilingual phone support.

Technicians from Riverside Online go to recipients’ homes to hook up everything and will make repeat visits if necessary.

For less money—$10 monthly for 24 months—a family can choose to buy a used, reconditioned computer, with most of the same features.

The program is limited to families that have children in the Riverside schools who qualify for federal free or reduced-priced school lunches. The students must have passing grades and must have completed a basic computer course at one of four community centers before their families are eligible for the program.

After enrolling 30 families last September, the program has grown to 169 families. Forty more families are on the waiting list, as the group tries to sign up an additional credit union.

Further information is available on the Web at www.rcol.org.

Charlotte’s After-School Access

Their families might not be able to afford computers and Internet access, but some poor teenagers in Charlotte, N.C., are acquiring the same skills as many of their more affluent peers by getting time and personal technology coaching after school.

The Charlotte-Mecklenburg Urban League operates two computer labs downtown that provide the venue for eight-week training courses in a program that was launched in 1997.

“We’re on the cutting edge of the digital divide; we’re several years ahead of other agencies,” boasts Sharon Jackson, the manager of the group’s Linking Youth to Technology Through Education project.

Classes number up to 20 students, usually high school seniors who have been referred by teachers and counselors. School vans deliver students to the center twice a week for the one-hour after-school sessions. Teachers certified in technology train adult volunteers, who then show students how to boot up the computers, manipulate Windows software, manage electronic files, and operate word processing and presentation software.

The center also provides courses for parents and opportunities for all students to use the equipment outside of class.

Students don’t need to be prodded to give up part of their afternoons because North Carolina now requires 12th graders to pass a computer- competency test as a graduation requirement—a chief focus of the course.

“It is a high-tech hurdle, so to speak—you must pass computer-skills tests ,” Jackson says. The long-range benefit will be to prepare the students for the modern workplace, she adds.

The project, technology experts say, is just one of a gaggle of efforts in Charlotte to make new technologies accessible to all in the city, where business leaders, educators, and social activists were quicker to grasp the importance of the Internet than their counterparts in many other small or midsize cities. More information is available at www.urbanleaguecc.org.

Beyond Isolation

The colonias, or informal settlements, scattered around the city of Mercedes, in Texas’ Rio Grande Valley, are among the places least- connected to the rest of the nation, with spotty telephone and electrical services, few stores, no public transportation—and a psychology of isolation.

“It’s real easy to fall into victimization mode. We’re such a depressed area, and you’ve got to get out of here,” says Lucilla Lagace, who grew up in the community composed mostly of Mexican immigrants.

After leaving for a time, she is back, building connections between students and community members and the outside world, through a partnership between NetDay—a nonprofit group working to close the digital divide—and the Mercedes Independent School District.

The project has brought in many other groups—including the city of Mercedes, the regional educational services agency, the regional federal empowerment-zone agency, the nonprofit social services group Communities in Schools, and several corporations—and drawn on federal and state grants and federal E-rate discounts for telecommunications.

The Michael and Susan Dell Foundation donated 300 computers to the 5,000- student district’s seven schools, allowing older machines to be networked in computer labs in every school.

That infusion of new technology, along with teacher training provided by program partners, has enabled each child at Kennedy Elementary School to have time to work with computers daily, says Barbara Hinojosa, the principal of the school, which enrolls 520 students in grades 1-4. In February, her school held a festive, daylong session featuring computer activities and games focused on preparing students for state standardized tests.

The most ambitious phase will be finished soon: The district is building a Tech Dome facility, a center to use for training staff in the use of technology and giving students and their families access to computers after school hours.

For more information, visit http://www.tomorrow.org/ on the Web.

A version of this article appeared in the May 10, 2001 edition of Education Week as Projects Offer Access, Training


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