The days of the digital divide may be numbered. As the debate over digital equality shifts from hardware and connectivity to the best ways technology can be used in teaching and learning, a host of new initiatives around the country are targeting the achievement of minority students — and succeeding.
These new programs range from distance learning for at-risk kids to information technology academies in inner cities and innovative ways of training teachers and parents. They reach across the spectrum of African American, Hispanic American, Asian American, and Native American communities and usually operate on modest and replicable scales. And they have been increasingly driven by an emerging force of minority leaders in educational technology.
This trend was promoted for the past six years by ISTE's Minority Leadership Project, which has offered mentoring, networking, and an annual conference for its growing membership. This project is currently in transition, but plenty of other minority-led programs are charging full speed ahead. (For more on ISTE and leadership, see the More@ section.)
Among recent success stories are New Mexico's programs that help high school students on both ends of the academic spectrum.
"We're actually a 'minority majority' state," emphasizes Stephen Sanchez, New Mexico's director of curriculum, instruction, and learning technologies. The majority Sanchez is referring to consists mainly of Hispanic and Native Americans in rural communities. For the past three years, Sanchez has made online AP courses available for the hundreds of students around the state who otherwise might not have access to advanced studies.
"This is an example of how the technology serves the needs of the kids," Sanchez says. "Underserved kids are hungry for advanced coursework and without that opportunity, they lose their potential."
Among those taking notice of New Mexico's model is the College Board, which is currently investigating how online programs like New Mexico's could be offered around the country.
Meanwhile, a reengagement program for dropouts has made a major difference in retention rates at Rio Grande High School in Albuquerque. Besides providing a case manager, a social worker, and teachers on-site, the reengagement center connects its student population to 21 remedial courses online.
"The kids overwhelmingly say that they get immediate feedback from these courses, and then get live tutoring on the spot," says Mike Silva, the president of the Rio Grande Education Collaborative that runs the program with state support. In its first year in 2001, the center worked with 90 students who had dropped out. Seventy returned to the high school.
Over the following school year, the center enrolled 370 students who were at risk of dropping out. Silva recalls that 17 percent of his incoming class arrived accompanied by parole officers or wearing court-imposed ankle bracelets. Still, almost 200 students finished the 14-week program, and the official dropout rate at the high school plummeted from 17.1 percent in the previous year to 6.8 percent.
The Fresno school district in California has created its own virtual high school called Cyber High, which is aimed mainly at the 8,000 high school students who are children of migrant farm workers. These mostly Mexican American students sometimes move with their parents to different parts of the state as many as three or four times a year, leaving incomplete coursework and graduation credits behind.
Cyber High allows them to make up those missing credits while they continue their studies at their new high schools. And while "paper-and-pencil" programs have helped children of migrant workers catch up for decades, Cyber High boasts a 42 percent higher graduation rate for its students, according to recent studies.
"These kids all were at-risk students, so the expectations for them at their schools have been different than for other students," says curriculum coordinator Carol Lopez. "With this program, the kids are motivated when they earn units of credit and see how easily they can succeed."
In Seattle, Wash., motivation has become one of the driving forces at previously low-achieving Cleveland High School, which has a predominantly Asian, Pacific Islander, and African American student body.
Over the past two years, the school has remade itself with its InfoTech Academy, a program within the larger school.
The 150 10th through 12th graders in the academy spend part of their day taking courses in Web design, networking, database technology, and software programming. These classes supplement a traditional academic curriculum that also has a technological bent. For example, students taking biology design their own Web pages demonstrating how organ systems work. For history class, they use their desktop publishing skills to create books on subjects such as historical heroes. They also get closer to the high-tech world through job shadowing, mentoring, and internships at companies and organizations around Seattle.
According to lead teacher Robin Jones, Seattle's InfoTech Academy has served a double-edged purpose. "It's a hook for kids who might not stay in school," she explains. "But it also serves as a beacon for the best students in the district who want to be programmers."
She adds that the academy is by no means a vocational training school. "The key difference is that our end product is hopefully a student who goes to college," she says. "To get really good jobs, you have to go to college. The point here is to keep students interested enough and to get them to find out that they are really good at something."
The academy's first class of seniors will graduate this spring with encouraging statistics so far. The GPAs and retention rates of InfoTech students are higher than the general Cleveland High School population.
"Out of an original class of 55 students, we have 48 returning seniors," Jones says. "That's phenomenal for Cleveland High School."
The InfoTech Academy is not alone. The Career Academy Support Network — which is based at the University of California, Berkeley, and provided seed money for the Seattle school — counts more than 20 similar programs around the country.
In Georgia's DeKalb County, which includes part of Atlanta and its environs, the school district has extended the benefits of educational technology into the minority community through a series of Family Technology Resource Centers.
"It started off as an idea for bridging the gap between parents and schools by using technology as a hook to keep parents interested," says Edward Bouie Jr., who directs the district's information management systems and started the program six years ago. "Since then, we've evolved into 22 community computer labs in underserved areas that are open to students after school hours."
The centers are located in schools throughout the district and are open 24 hours a week beyond the regular school day. What began as a few after-hours computer skills classes for parents has burgeoned into a larger program of such classes and added online courses for students preparing for the high school graduation exam and the SAT or completing credits for a GED.
Bouie says he built the network of centers upon a simple premise — that school facilities and computer equipment were going unused after the normal school day. This is what makes each relatively inexpensive to run at $30,000 a year. He also notes that the 22 centers — soon to expand to 23 — do not take a "cookie cutter" approach. Each center addresses the different needs of the neighborhoods, which include translators in heavily Hispanic neighborhoods and security guards in particularly high-crime areas. There is even a center set at a local hospital where school-age children are long-term patients.
Bouie adds that the program's focus on community development, rather than just teaching technology, make it an initiative that other educational systems can adapt. The DeKalb school district has drawn widespread attention from neighboring Fulton County and several districts in Wisconsin, which have implemented similar programs.
A more grassroots production is the Northwest Native American Reading Curriculum, which delivers an extensive and culturally relevant program on CD-ROM.
"We found little research on Native American children, but we were seeing low vocabulary and poor communication skills," says Denny Hurtado, the former chairman of the Skokomish tribe in Washington state and the director of Indian education for the state's 29 tribes and their 12,000 children. "Whereas the average vocabulary of white students might be 20,000 words, the average for our Native American students is 2,500 words. There was also a cultural discontinuity. So we went on a journey to address those issues."
Hurtado has cobbled together federal, state, tribal, and corporate funds and collaborated with Evergreen State College in Olympia to produce a reading curriculum centered on the themes of the drum, the canoe, and hunting and gathering. Now in its second year of pilot testing on seven reservations around Washington, the CD-ROM also includes testimonials from tribal elders, as well as 22 short books commissioned from Native American authors to fill the void in culturally relevant reading materials.
"Kids love the program. It's interactive, it's exciting, and it's something new," Hurtado reports. "It also appeals to them because it's about something they can relate to. It's an accurate, culturally based curriculum that teaches our kids to read."
The new technology also serves a practical purpose by cutting the printing costs of the newly created books. The books are downloadable in PDF format and the CD-ROMs cost only $2.50 each to produce. Hurtado has heard from Native American organizations throughout the Western states, Alaska, and New York. He is giving a formal presentation about the curriculum at the National Indian Education Conference when it meets next month in North Carolina.
"Then it's really going to take off," he predicts.
While much of the emphasis has fallen on quality educational programming by and for minorities, Joyce Pittman, founder of a University of Cincinnati preservice program that is part of the Comprehensive Educational Restructuring and Technology Infusion Initiative, has raised a strong and steady voice in favor of teacher training as a key element in addressing equity issues.
"We need to think of teachers as leaders of this movement in order to to make it work. They need to be included," insists Pittman. That's a challenge complicated by the distribution of what Pittman calls the "haves and have nots" throughout the teaching profession.
"Urban teachers in general have not received the same extent of professional development as teachers in affluent districts," she explains. And she says the former need to increase their efforts to take technology and teaching to a more advanced level.
"It comes from what I call 'the will to change,'" Pittman says. "If that means staying after school or working on Saturday to write a grant to get the training they need, that's their professional responsibility."
Pittman is doing her part to help with CERTI, but her first challenge is changing the prevailing mindset about using technology with students at underserved schools.
"When I talk to the preservice teachers," Pittman notes, "they say, 'If I worked at another school, that might work. But these kids need more control.' So included in the CERTI curriculum and pedagogy is the question, 'Where do I want my students to go, and what's in-between?'"
Those aspiring educators learn to assess student needs and respond with multidisciplinary and multimedia lesson plans in which technology bolsters the content. They also start to remove themselves as the center of the learning experience in the classroom.
"We also talk about cultural relevance as well as what attracts student interest," Pittman adds. "In inner cities, for example, students have a great interest in the history of segregation and integration. The Internet then becomes a valuable resource, whether exploring the roots of slavery or the beginnings of the civil rights movement."
For further details on Joyce Pittman and ISTE's Minority Leadership Project, see "Minority Leadership Training".
Ronald Schachter (email@example.com), a former high school English teacher, works as a freelance writer in Newton, Mass.
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Minority Leadership Training
Joyce Pittman is one of the leaders who has actively participated in ISTE's Minority Leadership Project. The centerpiece of that initiative is an annual conference of members at NECC. Jenelle Leonard, the program manager for the U.S. Department of Education's Technology Innovation Challenge Grant Group, helped organize the leadership project six years ago. The gathering was designed as a meeting of the minds to solve mutual problems and share best practices. Leonard saw attendance rise from 20 participants the first year to over 100, as well as a steady rise in members moving into more responsible positions in their school districts.
"Every year, we have more participation and the symposiums get stronger," she says. "We saw an increase of minorities in leadership positions, including instructional technology trainers, district technology coordinators, and assistant superintendents for technology."
For the past two years, though, the minority conference has been subsumed in a more general leadership symposium at NECC. That approach has temporarily altered the Minority Leadership Project's approach, even though it continues to offer mentoring and an active e-mail forum, says James Smith, who chaired the project's 2001 symposium and also supervises Washington state's program for Enhancing Education Through Technology.
"We're looking at forming a separate group again for next year in New Orleans because the issues are very specific to communities of color," he reports.
There are still an array of hurdles facing today's educational technology leaders, starting with the underrepresentation of minorities in high-tech fields. Elsa Macias directs information technology research for the Tomas Rivera Policy Institute, which is based in Claremont, Calif., and studies issues affecting Latino communities. Last year, Macias co-authored a study on Latinos and information technology for the IBM Hispanic Digital Divide Task Force. "Only about 3 percent of Web content is in Spanish. We need to get more Latinos interested in creating relevant content," Macias points out. "There are also fewer Latino computer scientists and software engineers. If you have fewer cultural perspectives, hardware and interfaces are going to have less usability for certain populations."
There is still a need for more minority teachers. For all the efforts of Joyce Pittman's CERTI program in Ohio, most graduates are choosing the affluent side of the digital divide. "We need incentives to get good teachers to go into our impoverished schools," Pittman says.
Leonard agrees and suggests an incentive package that she's seen work for various DOE grant recipients. It includes stipends, extra pay, continuing education credits, and more days off for professional development.
"It will still be a challenge because the problems are not based so much on technological progress as on the school," warns Leonard. "It's the school environment that is the challenge. It's the safety issues. It's the leadership in individual schools."
"There are lots of success stories, but there's a lot to be done," agrees James Smith. "We'll probably still be having the same conversation 10 years from now."
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