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Elgin center aims to close ''digital divide'' for low-income youths
ELGIN, Illinois (Daily Herald) -- For months and months, 9-year-old Franchesca's father tried to teach her how to type on the family's home computer, usually using traditional word processing programs.
"It was pretty boring," the girl confessed.
Then, during a computer class at the Elgin Recreation Center, 1080 E. Chicago St., Franchesca discovered the technological wonder of instant messaging. The service allows computer users to "talk" to each other by typing messages into the computer. All registered users can follow along as the "discussion" takes place on the screen.
Quite the conversationalist, Franchesca said the new tool was cool enough to get her fingers flying.
"The computer taught me how to type faster," she said, firing off a response to a question posed by a classmate sitting across the room.
Franchesca is one of more than 100 students in the Elgin Recreation Center's summer school program who are learning computer skills in a new computer lab that opened this spring. Grants from the state and funding from the United Way and the Elgin Junior Services board helped the center buy 10 new computers and install a high-speed Internet connection in the classroom.
Bridging the "digital divide"
Leaders at the center hope the computer lab will help close what has been called the "digital divide" - the disparity in computer use and literacy between low-income youths and their more prosperous peers.
Of the hundreds of youths the Elgin Recreation Center serves each year, 85 percent come from nearby low-income housing in what is called the city's Poplar Creek neighborhood. The average income level of those families hovers around $18,000 per year.
"The idea is to make the technology as accessible as possible, to get these kids and young adults in here and using it," said John Schwan, chairman of the center's board of directors. "This technology is cutting across all occupations, and if you're not literate, you're going to be left behind."
A recent survey of 462 Elgin residents found 58 percent of households have a computer. About 45 percent of all residents have Internet access at their home.
While the city's survey did not compare incomes of computer users, national statistics show much of the disparity between technology haves and have-nots usually relates to financial status.
A 1999 study by the U.S. Department of Commerce found 80 percent of households with an income of $75,000 per year or more have a computer in the home. About 60 percent have Internet access. Meanwhile, about 20 percent of families with an income between $15,000 and $19,000 per year have a computer in the home. Barely 11 percent have Internet access, the report showed.
"Opportunities to explore"
The answer to making computers more accessible to people of all incomes, many believe, is establishing more "community access centers," places like schools, libraries and social service agencies where people can use computers free of charge.
Elgin is working toward that goal. The Gail Borden Public Library offers 20 computers for public use, and that lab is one of the most popular destinations for patrons of all ages, especially children and teenagers.
The Boys and Girls Club of Elgin runs a computer program for its members, youths 6 to 17. The club teaches computer skills to students in its own computer lab. If a student learns all the necessary skills and graduates from the program, they receive their own computer. Computers usually are donated to the agency by the city, residents or local businesses.
Elgin's technology action team also has a goal of creating a community computer center, where residents could learn to use hardware and software, search the Internet or take correspondence courses via computer.
At the Elgin Recreation Center, a nonprofit agency aimed at preventing kids from joining gangs, the classes appear to be working.
On a recent afternoon, 8-year-old Daniel was maneuvering his way through NASA's Web site, looking for answers to a worksheet about stars. Another child, 9-year-old Desi, raised her hand to announce a new high score on an educational typing game - 42 words per minute. The score was higher than most of the teenagers who participate in the center's computer program, teacher Fernando Villeda said.
"We provide opportunities to explore and learn that they don't get at home," Villeda said. "Sometimes they surprise us."
On top of the skills the kids gain, Schwan said the exposure to technology builds confidence and puts low-income students on a more level playing field with their classmates when they return to school in the fall. And you never know when all of that might pay off, Schwan said.
"You just hope maybe one of them will become the next Bill Gates," he said.
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