The U.S. Department of Education last week awarded its first-ever grants to support the establishment of community technology centers--facilities intended to narrow the “digital divide” that separates families with little or no access to computers from the rest of an increasingly high-tech society. Forty projects will receive a total of $9.9 million in grants during the program’s first year; grants are renewable for two additional years.
Supporters of the initiative predict the centers will help improve students’ academic achievement, further adults’ education, and help community members develop workforce and technology skills.
“I’m impressed,” Paula Y. Bagasao, the director of information-technology research for the Tomás Rivera Policy Institute in Claremont, Calif., said after reviewing descriptions of the winning projects.
“I thought these are the right problems to work on--to bring to the family level a low-income support program on the many uses of computers,” said Ms. Bagasao, who has been conducting research on similar centers in poor communities.
Many of the centers will support school activities by letting children use computers and the Internet outside of school hours, giving pre-service teachers experience as mentors, and providing a place where entire families can receive training in the use of software and hardware.
“Technology must be about opportunity for every American family, and that means making technology available to every family for education, skills development--even for your children just learning to read,” Vice President Al Gore said in a written statement announcing the grants.
Grant recipients include universities and colleges, school districts, a science museum, a YMCA, American Indian tribes, libraries, and organizations concerned with Hispanic issues, housing, and community development. All projects have multiple partners--many including schools--and are required to provide money to match the federal grants.
Wide Range of Projects
Community School District 5 in New York City, for example, received $299,908 this year to add hardware and training to a new parent- literacy center being constructed on an unused floor of Ralph Bunche Middle School in a Harlem housing project.
Paul Reese, the project director, said the money would pay for videoconferencing equipment to create a “virtual community” for adults participating in the literacy project. The center will also distribute reconditioned used computers to families, he said. Fewer than 9 percent of students at the school have a computer at home, he noted.
Another winner, the Science Museum of Minnesota in St. Paul, will expand an existing program offered in a mobile art laboratory, where inner-city teenagers receive after-school help from adult mentors on projects in art, science, technology, and engineering.
Molly Reisman, the museum’s project developer for learning technologies, said the museum would start a similar program at a St. Paul middle school and a community center located in a trailer park.
Overall, she said, the number of people participating should increase from just 16 teenagers in last winter’s pilot project to about 760 people this year.
The concept of community technology centers grew out of the movement to give the public free access to the Internet--via “freenets"--in the 1980s.
Today, an estimated 3,000 community technology centers are in place nationwide, in libraries, senior citizens’ centers, settlement houses, and other facilities, according to Peter Miller, the public-policy-project coordinator of the Community Technology Center Network, or CTCNet, in Brookline, Mass.
The launch of the federal grant program comes as the need for providing technology access to disadvantaged communities is getting wide recognition. It is underscored by a U.S. Department of Commerce study last spring documenting that households with incomes of $75,000 and higher are more than 20 times as likely to have access to the Internet than those at the lowest income levels, and more than nine times as likely to have a computer at home.
Another federal grant, the Education Department’s 21st Century Learning Center Program, awards money to support after-school activities, including the use of technology, in school buildings.
The Clinton administration wants to expand the grant program for community technology centers to $65 million next year, to support 300 additional centers.
Competition for Funds
Mr. Miller of CTCNet seemed disappointed that only two of his network’s 300 members were among the 40 winners.
He and other observers suggested that when a federal grant becomes available, bigger players get interested, and small community organizations may draw back.
“Grant-writing is a huge problem for these grassroots organization,” Ms. Bagasao of the Tom s Rivera Policy Institute said.
And small community centers may shy away from the rigors of administering a federal grant, according to Richard Lowenberg, the executive director of the Davis (Calif.) Community Network. “We are very fragile,” he said.
The Davis network did not apply for the CTC grants, he said, even though it runs several technology-access projects in the Sacramento area, maintaining computer kiosks in public buildings, providing technology support for schools, and making computers available for migrant farm workers.
Terry Baker, a senior research scientist at the Center for Children and Technology, located in New York City, has conducted a still-unpublished study of community technology centers for the DeWitt Wallace-Reader’s Digest Foundation.
He said such centers seem to be most successful when they provide mentoring, evaluate how well they serve the community’s needs, and have business partners that are involved in designing the program, not just paying for it.