Crossing the Digital Divide

By ALLISON DAVIS

The classrooms were full Saturday at Horace Mann Academic Middle School, as 86 families from the 6th and 7th grade classes received free desktop computers to take home.

Horace Mann, which received the computers through a new partnership with Computers For Youth, is the second school in the state and the first school in San Francisco to take part in its Take IT Home Program.

“Horace Mann is taking steps to closing the digital divide, which is even bigger than the achievement gap,” said San Francisco School Superintendent Carlos Garcia, who attended the giveaway that reached some 70 percent of the school’s 6th and 7th graders.

To receive computers, families simply had to sign up and attend a parent-child training session. After that mandatory and bilingual four-hour training, in which families learned how to set up the refurbished desktop computers as well as master the basics of the educational software, each left with a computer loaded with 12 educational programs as well as Microsoft Office.

Families that participated also received free high-speed Internet for two years and service for the lifespan of the computer.

Outside of the school, Nina Flowers and her daughter Kayla were leaving with their new Compaq Evo computer. Kayla was talking excitedly to friends about games like Slinky Ball, which teaches students the scientific method.

“It’s good for her to be able to utilize these programs. It’s much better than her using Myspace to learn computers,” said Flowers. She added that her daughter, a 7th grader at the school, is starting to write more complicated papers in her classes.

“This will help her with her papers,” said Flowers. “It’s hard for her to try and write them at the library.”

Computers For Youth first started in New York in 1999, and the west coast initiative was launched this year. It is funded by donors such as AT&T and Bank of America ,and participating schools are chosen after a rigorous application process that includes site visits. To be eligible, 75 percent of a school’s students must qualify for reduced or free lunch.

Sixth grader Jose Romo was most excited to use My Life. The social studies game lets students pretend they are from other countries and leads them through the process of writing profiles of their new personas. “It’s important to use this at home so I can get better at it,” said Romo.

Ben and his mother learning how to use Slinky Ball on their brand-new Compaq Evo computer.

Ben and his mother learning how to use Slinky Ball on their new Compaq Evo computer.

“Sixth grade is a time when students start to pull away from their parents,” said Emily Simas, California State Director of Computers For Youth. “Parents also pull away as homework gets more complicated.”

While this occurs with all parents, regardless of socio-economic background, college-educated and higher-income parents use the Internet to research answers with their children, added Simas.

According to Parent Involvement Coordinator, Mirabel Sainez, about half of Horace Mann’s families had no computer at home before Saturday. In the other half, siblings shared one computer.

“How can you expect to be a 21st Century learner with tools from the century before?” asked Garcia.

Garcia, principal of Horace Mann from 1989 to 1991, understands the school well. Others credit him with implementing reforms, including the now widely used block schedule that has been a success.

“It’s a school on the rise,” said current Principal Paul Jacobson.

After struggling, Horace Mann has seen a remarkable turn around in test scores. The school had the second highest gains in the district among Latino students last year. Its Academic Performance Index score rose 21 percent to 592. The top schools have API scores of 1000.

The school has been integrating technology into the curriculum by using electronic whiteboards in math classes and teaching with project-based programs such as Digital Story Telling in language arts.

They have also been working to increase parent involvement.

“We have had some difficulty getting parents involved in the past, especially frequently,” said Sainez. The school is working to change those habits by implementing new opportunities such as hosting parent meetings four times a month, where parents are encouraged to come and speak to teachers.

Their efforts with Computers for Youth was met with overwhelming enthusiasm, as Sainez yielded hundreds of phone calls from excited parents in the months leading up to the event.

“They were more excited than the students,” said Sainez, “We’re hoping the involvement will pan out and be more consistent, if the parents are involved, if they are on board, we have better results.”

“We only get them for about six and a half hours a day. It has to keep going at home,” said Jacobson.

“This faculty is tremendous,” said Simas of the efforts Horace Mann to co-coordinate every last detail of the training sessions as well as the impressive turnout. Faculty members were involved every step of the way, down to calling families who were absent to driving students and their new computers home at the end of the day.

“They have demonstrated a true dedication to parent involvement and technology,” said Samis.

It was this dedication, and the hard work of the entire school to improve test scores, that garnered the attention from Computers for Youth, and what led to their acceptance, program representatives said.

“We had so many schools. It was heartbreaking to have to choose, but Horace Mann’s dedication stood out,” said Simas of the school’s application to the program.

As a result, the school received refurbished computers, and each incoming 6th grade class from now on will have access to the same partnership with Computers For Youth.

Clyde Fisher Middle in San Jose was the first school to participate in the program, and El Sereno Middle School in Los Angeles will begin their training in March. By the end of the year, Computers For Youth hopes to help 250 families in the Bay Area and 250 in Los Angeles.

Previous data from a joint study with Educational Testing Service has shown that 90 percent of parents feel more comfortable helping their children with homework and 75 percent of students work harder in school after receiving a Computer For Youth computer.

“This is about bringing parents and their children together for academic success. The technology is a carrot,” says Simas.

As families streamed out of the school carrying computers, each smile bigger than the one before, community members, school staff and representatives from the San Francisco Unified School District looked on with equal excitement.

“This is an exciting day for Horace Mann,” said Joan Hepperly, the assistant superintendent of middle schools. “This school is a rising tide.”

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