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Tech

Technical difficulties

Computers can bridge - or widen - the gaps between rich and poor.

Students use the Bowen Library computers after school.
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Published 11/17/1999

Maria Diaz and Brittaney Seward sit before a computer screen reading about Nicaragua for a school project on Latin-American history. The 13-year-old girls say they come to the Bowen Public Library on Detroit’s southwest side nearly every day to do their homework on its computers.

"When I don’t have work, I just come for fun," says Diaz.

On a Friday afternoon, the library, located in a poor, predominantly Hispanic section of Detroit, is bustling with kids, mostly between the ages of 8 and 14. They’re on the computers, using them for playing games or doing schoolwork.

Last month, Diaz stopped using the Bowen Library for a while because the computer printer was out of ink and she couldn’t copy material from the Internet.

The library, which has only one printer, did not have an ink cartridge for about 10 days, says Margarita Oritz, a Bowen branch librarian, explaining that insufficient funding prevents the library from stocking up on this kind of equipment. An ink cartridge costs between $110 and $140, and the library uses about one a month.

"So that is about $1,200 a year only in cartridges," Ortiz says. During the week and a half before a new ink cartridge arrived, Ortiz noted the number of kids who visited the branch dwindled.

The high cost of computer technology is a problem in more places than just Detroit’s Bowen library branch. Studies show that poor households across the country are the least likely to have personal computers and Internet access. Conversely, statistics point out that prosperous households are able to invest more money in computer technology, allowing people living in middle-class and affluent areas greater access to these resources.

This divide concerns many who fear that less access to these tools may mean less ability for the poor to compete in a growing technological job market.

Public policies and grassroots movements are under way to level the technological playing field, but it’s too soon to tell whether these efforts will be enough.

Some say now is a critical time, in which the information age could be used to either reduce economic disparity between the haves and have-nots, or to further expand it.

Dollars = access

Last July the U.S. Department of Commerce released a study entitled, "Falling Through the Net: Defining the Digital Divide." The report describes those who had the most and least access to computer technology between 1984 and 1998. Not surprisingly, it shows that those with higher income and education levels were more likely to own computers during this time period.

Rural black households have remained the least likely to own computers, followed by Hispanics living in urban centers.

Not only is there a disparity between the rich and poor in computer ownership, but the gap between the two is widening. In 1984, there existed a 20 percent difference between the highest and lowest income levels, compared to 64 percent in 1998.

The study shows that the same holds true for those most and least likely to own modems. It follows that one possible consequence of inequitable access to computer technology is a similar disparity in access to the job market. By next year, 60 percent of jobs will require technological skills, according to Larry Irving, U.S. Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Communications and Information. Without these skills, Irving fears that the poor will be left behind.

The great divide

The digital divide doesn’t just describe personal computer access. Public schools can also indicate how well wired a community is. North Farmington High School, which has 1,300 students, is considered to have some of the best computer technology in the state.

"Every teacher, student, custodian, secretary and kitchen worker has access to a computer," says Armando Delicato, the high school’s media specialist.

A tour of the school proves this to be true. The media center, formerly the school library, has 55 computers, all with Internet access. Another 20 are located in the computer lab. Computers are used for the architectural design classes, chemistry, math and even auto repair classes, where, like most auto shops, students use computers to diagnose engine problems. Students with home computers eventually will be able to log on to the school system.

"I don’t know of any school anywhere more advanced than Farmington," says Delicato, who has been with the school district since 1991.

But it is not just money that enabled the affluent school district to make North Farmington High School one of the most computer savvy in the state. Delicato says this could not have happened without the support of school administrators.

"The leadership had to come from the district," he says.

Peggy Schmidt is the director of Instructional Technology and Media Services for the Farmington school district. She says it’s difficult to put a dollar value on how much is invested in computer technology each year, but that $4.5 million has been spent installing fiber optic lines through the schools. Tax dollars are used every five years to replace obsolete computers and printers. And by the end of this year, says Schmidt, the district should have about 3,000 computers, which will mean one computer for every three students, twice as many as the national goal of one computer for every six students.

But Schmidt warns that the district does not invest in technology for its own sake. "We do not teach technology," she says. "We use technology to enhance and develop the curriculum."

Detroit Public Schools has a similar philosophy, though far fewer resources than Farmington Hills. Rita Rose heads the business and technology department at Cass Technical High School in Detroit, which is considered one of the city’s best schools. She says the school, which has 2,500 students, was the first to get computer equipment in the district.

"Now, we are the last to get anything because they want to get all the other schools up to where we are," says Rose. "But now we are behind the other schools."

Cass Tech’s 800-student business department has seven rooms with 25 to 28 computers each, of varying brands, memory capacities and grades. The best-equipped room has 28 new computers, all with Internet access. "So it’s not like we have the best," says Rose, "but we do have computers."

The school’s library has about 23 Internet-equipped computers, says Linda Soller, the school librarian, adding that it could use about 10 more, but there is no space for them.

"The library is the size of a peanut," says Soller. "The question is, do we have table and chairs for the students to sit at, or computers."

It is also difficult and expensive to wire the old building. Carole Baker teaches advanced architectural design at Cass Tech. Her class has nine computers for 32 students.

Though a former student wired the classroom for free last year to make it Internet accessible, Baker says they still don’t have the modems the district promised last year.

"I have the space and it’s all wired, but I need the technology."

James Davis, director of Information Systems Management for the Detroit school district, says that the district’s goal is to ensure that all of the 8,400 Detroit classrooms will be completely wired by the end of 2000.

To do this, each school has its own technology budget and decides for itself how it will be spent. Davis says the majority of schools partner with corporations such as Ameritech and EDS, which help provide hardware and wiring.

Even though technology at Detroit schools is not as advanced as in other districts, the students still fare well in state and regional competitions where computer skills are tested.

In fact, this year, seven Cass Tech students went to the national high school competition for Business Professionals of America, and placed fifth out of thousands of high schools around the country.

"Money doesn’t count for everything," says Rose.

Closing the gap

Money doesn’t count for everything, but it helps. Last year, the Bowen branch was one of four Detroit public libraries to receive a portion of a $160,000 grant from Libraries Online!, a program founded in 1997 by Microsoft CEO Bill Gates. The first round of grants awarded in 1998 benefited about 1,000 libraries in low-income areas of the United States and Canada. A total of $200 million will be given to libraries in poor communities throughout North America until 2003.

The funding enabled the Bowen branch to install 20 computers, of which 18 are Internet accessible. Oritz says the number of kids visiting the library has doubled since the computers were installed – the library had only four computers before it received the grant, but they were not Internet accessible.

A curriculum is currently being designed for free computer classes that will be offered to the public, says Oritz.

Maurice Wheeler is the director of the Detroit Public Library, which has an annual budget of about $28 million for all its branches, including Bowen. He says that the DPL, like other urban libraries, struggles to afford computer technology.

"We have no idea where the money is coming from," says Wheeler. "That is typical for all urban libraries around country."

But he says that the DPL is investing in computer technology regardless of the financial strain.

"We have to move forward if we are going to remain relevant to the people we serve and provide the same level of technology to our community as the surrounding communities."

Groups like Libraries Online! are sprouting up around the country to help economically challenged communities in the digital age.

Peter Miller is the community technology consultant for Community Technology Center’s Network (CTCNet). CTCNet is an electronic clearinghouse that helps organizations around the country develop computer centers in neighborhoods that would otherwise not have access to this technology. The group provides training, software, information about grants, and access to 300 other organizations doing similar work for a $100 annual membership fee.

"I can’t say enough about CTCNet," says Margaret Booras, who helps run Martin Luther King Neighborhood Network, a computer center housed at a federally funded housing project in Detroit. Booras says she uses CTCNet to find out about grants and software.

"The information they provide is huge," says Booras. "They are an enormous resource for us."

With CTCNet’s help, Booras was able to set up a computer center that serves the 500 families who live in the apartment complex at Jefferson and Chene. The center, which has eight computers and is expecting another 14 next year, offers free computer training to anyone who wants it.

"We got it cooking here," says Booras about the center, which is open every day from 10:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. "The ’have-nots’ have accessibility. It’s just getting yourself up and getting here."

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development initiated the MLK Neighborhood Network by providing seed money for the group. It is one of the ways HUD is trying to ensure that poor neighborhoods have access to computer technology and training.

"We were the first of nine," says Booras. "Now there are hundreds."

HUD has set up 540 neighborhood networks across the country, with at least one in every state. Once a center is established, it has to find its own funding, though the federal agency will continue to provide technical assistance, says Bill Weger, HUD spokesperson.

There is also some clamoring to make federal programs such as the "e-rate" available to nonprofit groups that serve poor communities. Currently, the e-rate, which was enacted in 1997, gives funding to public schools and libraries in poor communities.

However, the money can only be used to wire schools and libraries, not for training or computer equipment.

"Here is a program that is supposed to be designed for the poor, but the money goes to the telecommunications companies," says Miller from CTCNet. "Unless you have grass roots saying there are problems with the policies, you are developing programs that expand the digital divide."

Steve Weiss is a member of Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility. The national organization addresses issues such as the digital divide by volunteering technical services to low-income schools and libraries.

Weiss says the sure way to bridge the gap between the haves and have-nots is to make technology affordable. One way to do this is legislatively, by keeping phone and Internet service prices low.

"If we ignore it, the digital divide will only worsen class distinctions as time goes on," says Weiss. "I think that technology must be made as available as possible to everyone so that technology does not serve as yet another tool to create new distinctions between people."

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