- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 14, 2000

Kristy Delcid has never heard of the digital divide. Closing the gap between the computer haves and have-nots may be a hot political issue, but all this 4-year-old cares about is getting some computer time. Her mother, Nery, has brought her to the Arlington Central Library on a bright Monday afternoon to play on a computer dedicated to preschool games. Mrs. Delcid had to sign up for the highly coveted half-hour slot. Kristy has access to a computer at her preschool and already has learned her ABCs and numbers up to 15, but she looks forward to this extracurricular click time.
"We come here every week," says Mrs. Delcid, who doesn't have a computer of her own. "For Kristy, this time is just fun, but I see that it's educational. She's learning so much. She's not sitting in front of TV. But we can only come half an hour each week. That's just not enough time."
Local libraries often are the first stop for computerless families looking for an entry ramp onto the information highway, as the Internet is often called. The most recent data from the National Telecommunications and Information Administration estimates that while slightly fewer than 40 percent of American households have computers, nearly 90 percent of all libraries are wired.
With schools putting increasing pressure on students to produce word-processed papers and Internet-researched reports, limited community terminals and limited library hours have left many local families longing for better access.
Linda Roberts, senior adviser on technology to the secretary of education, says the most recent Department of Education statistics show that two-thirds of U.S. classrooms are wired.
"Parents should expect that with the increasing classroom use of technological tools, such as the Internet and computers, there will be an increasing expectation that these same tools will carry over to schoolwork done at home," Ms. Roberts says.
She says a recent survey showed that middle-class families are buying home computers at the fastest rates, but community technology centers, expanded school computer-lab hours and other local programs could help poorer families bridge the digital divide.
"I'm confident that with the help of private as well as government funds, within three years every, student in this country will have access to computers if not in their homes, then in their communities," Ms. Roberts says.
The private sector is engaged already. Many dot.com corporations such as Dulles-based America Online, flush with Web-wide wealth have created foundations. Many of their grants are focused on the classroom and workplace bringing computers into schools and funding community-based computer classes to help disadvantaged people gain better employment.
Early this month, Microsoft Corp. Chairman Bill Gates' charity announced it will donate $350 million over three years to increase technology in the nation's classrooms.
Few local programs have focused on helping families get computers into their homes. Last month, the White House announced a $2 billion program that included a $50 million food-stamp-style program to help poor families purchase computers and Internet access. Called "ClickStart," the program is designed to issue monthly vouchers to help families purchase stripped-down computers and Internet access from providers offering special low fees.

Help needed today

Tomorrow's still-to-be-approved programs are of little comfort to today's local families.
"We're very aware that some families in our community have more than others," says Susan McCarthy, acting head of the Arlington County Library system. The county's central library and six branches have Internet-connected terminals.
The Arlington library system does not install filters, which screen out inappropriate Web sites on its computers. This has been a controversial issue in other localities, such as Loudoun, where filters have been installed.
In response to long lines for computer sign-ins during busy weekend hours, Arlington last week opened a Cyber Center at the Arlington Career Center Building on South Walter Reed Drive.
"We were amazed at the community response," says Jane McQuade, the Cyber Center director. "In our first 30 hours, we had more than 130 people. The center is available to anyone, but [computer application] programs are aimed at middle or high school students and adults."
Public grants and private donations have allowed other communities to create computer labs in schools and community centers.
The Prince George's County Public Schools system plans to open a community technology center at its Langley Park/McCormick Elementary School by the end of this month. Expanded after-school hours and courses for adults as well as students will help as many as 5,500 members of the Langley Park community, says Joslyn Harris, spokeswoman for the Prince George's schools.
"Eventually, we hope to train members of the community to repair and upgrade donated equipment, which can be donated to families in the [Langley Park] area," Ms. Harris says.

Computers for children

The District has a number of community technology centers, although most of them are focused on training adults for employment in the computer-dependent workplace. That didn't seem right to Norman Eisen, who founded Kids Computer Workshop to bring technological training and computer access to children in their neighborhoods.
A partner in a District law firm, Mr. Eisen calls the digital divide "not just a real problem, but a tragic one."
The nonprofit group works with partners such as the former Anthony Bowen YMCA in the District's Shaw neighborhood to provide computer classes in after-school venues. The Bowen YMCA was recently renamed the Thurgood Marshall Center for Service and Heritage.
More than 200 children have graduated from the program to date. A new facility is scheduled to open this spring in the Urban Program Center at the Anacostia YMCA, and Mr. Eisen says his group has just completed an agreement to put the program into 10 charter schools in the District.
"This is one of the most satisfying things that I do," Mr. Eisen says. "When I see a child who didn't even know how to turn on a computer and at the end of our class [which runs concurrent with the school year] they can produce a computer-generated multimedia presentation, that's such a great feeling."
Darin Kenley is the executive director of Kids Computer Workshop. As a teacher in Newark and Trenton, N.J., he saw a "divide develop between children who had a computer at home and those who didn't."
While he's heartened to see how his group's computer classes "open up a child to a world of opportunities," he also empathizes with their frustration "that they have to wait an entire week before they get another hour on the computer."
Saying that a child's success in school is as dependent on his or her home environment as classroom support, Mr. Kenley says his group this month initiated family night at its lab at the Marshall Center.
"We want the whole family to come and do computer projects together," he says. "Some families just don't understand the importance of having a computer and being connected to the bigger world of the Internet. We want them to not just understand, but have a buy-in."
Verrell Hairston doesn't have to be convinced about the value of computer training. Her daughter Racquel, 11, has been enrolled in the Kids Computer Workshop class since the start of the school year, and both mother and daughter look forward to the weekly program.
"I'm so happy that this class gives her a head start into the information age," Mrs. Hairston says. "This may be the only way that she could get exposed to a computer and the skills that she'll need for the future since I can't afford a computer at home.

Motivating youngsters

The Foundation for Educational Innovation and its 40,000-square-foot D.C. Link and Learn Center in Southwest Washington also offers classes. It also has expanded its reach into a number of YCare after-school programs throughout the District, where children who complete their computer programs can earn points toward time in the electronic recreational center.
"We have a 50-inch TV that is linked to computer games," says Patricia Cole, spokeswoman for the foundation. "Our kids are really motivated to learn, but this ensures that they stay motivated to finish their course."
The group's TechCore program helps place refurbished computers into the homes of families that have completed training, she adds.
Throughout the country, some jurisdictions have rolled out innovative programs to bring whole communities into the information age in one fell swoop.
Maine this month an-nounced plans to provide every seventh-grade public school student with a laptop computer, and last year, Hancock High School in Kiln, Miss., became the largest school in the country to provide every student with a laptop computer, connected to the world's largest wireless local area network, or LAN. Every students home and family is connected without charge to the school's server.
Such wide-scale largess is yet to reach the Washington area, and families seeking more than occasional computer time must find a way to bring a computer into their homes.
Felicia Cook of Arlington fulfilled her 5-year-old daughter Emily's computer yearnings through weekly visits to their local library. But when Emily became a student at Arlington Traditional School's full-day kindergarten, the half-hour weekly sessions did not satisfy her growing desire for interactive learning.
Emily was zooming through a first-grade-level reading program at a recent session at the library and was disappointed when her half-hour came to a much-too-rapid close. The session's end didn't mean a week's wait for a return visit, however, because her family had purchased a new computer that week.
"We finally made the big purchase," Mrs. Cook says. "My husband has had access to a computer at work, but we really felt it was time to have one in our home."

LOAD COMMENTS ()

 

Click to Read More

Click to Hide