New Jersey's Solution to the Digital Divide

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Access, Collaboration and Equity Help Bridge the Technology Gap

Access, Collaboration and Equity Help Bridge the Technology Gap

It is well documented that although schools have made great strides toward access within their boundaries, many students lag behind others in the opportunity for access outside of the normal school day. The digital divide, a gap between those who have access to computers and the Internet and those who do not, d'es indeed exist. According to a Department of Commerce study, students in households with larger incomes are more likely to use a home computer for schoolwork than those in poorer households. For example, only 20 percent of students whose households earn less than $30,000 per year are able to access and use a computer at home, while 80 percent of students living in households that earn $75,000 or more have access to technology in their homes.

In New Jersey, where the current ratio for students to multimedia computers is 5.3-to-1, great strides have been made to provide students with equitable access to multimedia computers in the classroom. The state has made several grant programs available to assist in mitigating the disparities that lead to the digital divide. The Access-Collaboration-Equity (ACE) Centers are an example of one such program. Made possible through the New Jersey State Department of Education, the ACE Centers are intended to offer an extension of a school district's educational program for students, their families and members of the community who do not have access to technological resources that support participation in education activities.

The ACE Grant Program

The New Jersey Department of Education's Office of Educational Technology, which has funds totaling $7.4 million, administers 39 ACE Centers located in economically disadvantaged school districts. The centers are designed to help students achieve New Jersey's Core Curriculum Content Standards through instructional activities available to students beyond the school day. The supervised centers are open during evenings, weekends and summer, providing students, their families and community members with access to programs, resources, and services both on-site and online.

Funding for the program is made possible by the Goals 2000: Educate America Act and the Technology Literacy Challenge Fund. Although the funding is only provided for one year, ACE facilities are expected to continue operating for a number of years through support from its residents, school districts and/or community partnerships. So far, these centers are making progress toward breaking down the digital barrier, giving students and adults the opportunity to learn how technology enhances their lives.

Take for example the Union City ACE Center in Hudson County, where an introduction to computer applications course was designed for and offered to the parents of Union City School's students. On many occasions, both parent and child attended class together, exposing parents to the technology their children were learning and using daily. In one after-school project, participants learned word processing skills by writing a letter to Mayor Brian P. Stack of Union City. Participants wrote of their experiences in the ACE Center program and discussed various neighborhood issues that concerned them. Upon receiving the letters, Stack sent each student a thank-you note and made time to visit every participant at their homes to address their concerns.

Virtual Reality

Students from the Phillipsburg School District in Warren County are planning to apply the skills they learned at their local ACE Center, located at the Phillipsburg Housing Authority Center. The center plans to run a Sim City project during the summer. Using a software program, students plan to build an exact model of Phillipsburg as it exists today. Once built, they expect to spend time with members of the town government to learn how the town is run and how changes are made. Those changes and the results of simulated natural disasters will be incorporated into the computer-generated models in an attempt to forecast the results. The students then plan to report their findings to the town's government officials for their evaluation and comments.

The ACE Center in Phillipsburg also allows students and their families to meet regularly with school district staff to focus on activities that will help them achieve state standards. "We need to bridge the void of those people in our community who need skills but who are still afraid of schooling," says Larry McKenna, ACE program director. "If we can attract parents, we can probably better attract their kids, and that will result in a win-win situation for our community."

Learning Side By Side

Participants at the Lakewood ACE Center, located in the Lakewood School District in Ocean County, have had great success with the senior citizen component of the grant program, Side By Side. The center was established in the library of Lakewood High School to provide access to computer labs and workshops at no cost to Lakewood families during weeknights and weekends. Every day, about 10 seniors come into the ACE Center for one-on-one computer tutoring with a student. After tutoring, seniors are given the opportunity to visit a class of their choice at the high school.

"It's great to watch our senior citizens reconnect with the world of education," says Toni Lee Ponti, a program coordinator. "Learning never stops. The students love having the senior citizens in their classes and enjoy the relationships they have fostered during computer tutoring."

Practical Applications

In Salem County, ACE Centers have been established within the Salem City School District and at two Salem City Housing Authority community centers. Each community center has six computers and two cameras purchased with grant funds. The housing authority plans to use the equipment to take pictures of housing programs and on field trips for youngsters. In the future, the authority plans to use the equipment to produce an agency newsletter.

With that in mind, Edith Crews, a housing authority coordinator, visited one of the centers to learn how to operate a digital camera. Thanks to John Simons, technology facilitator with the school district, Crews learned all aspects of using a digital camera. Crews says she plans to use the knowledge she gained to teach others involved in housing authority projects.

Young people involved with the Salem City Lighthouse Youth Ministry are also benefiting from the ACE Centers. Every Friday evening, a group of youngsters led by five adults use the center's computers to surf the Web. They are using the Internet to broaden their knowledge in education both through age-appropriate secular educational Web sites and Christian and youth-ministry sites.

Just the Beginning

New Jersey's ACE Centers are helping the state bridge the digital divide by ensuring that all students have a fair opportunity to learn; improve teaching as well as learning; and generate, maintain and strengthen parent/community involvement. Students now have access to computers, parents are becoming computer-literate, adults are improving their skills, and senior citizens are rediscovering the learning process.

For New Jersey, this is just the beginning. The state's Department of Education's vision is that all students will be able to meet the Core Curriculum Content Standards through unlimited access to people, the vast array of curriculum and instruction offered in the state, and information and ideas, no matter where they exist. The Access-Collaboration-Equity Centers are helping to achieve that vision.

Natasha Gaujean-La Mar is an educational technology specialist at the New Jersey Department of Education's Office of Educational Technology. She has a master's degree in educational communications and technology from New York University's School of Education. Prior to working for the Department of Education, she was a content editor/producer at CompuServe, Inc.

For further information on each of the Access-Collaboration-Equity Centers, visit the New Jersey Department of Education's Web site at www.state.nj.us/njded/techno/ace/abstract.htm, or call the Educational Technology Department at (609)292-3518.

This article originally appeared in the 09/01/2001 issue of THE Journal.

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