Home-School Connection | Feature

It's a Family Affair

Computers for Youth works with low-income schools to put computers in the homes of sixth-grade students and bring parents into the learning mission.

Lisa WIlson remembers the day that she realized her daughter, Alexandra, a seventh-grader at Young Middle School in Atlanta, was dangerously close to giving up on math. "You can always tell when something is wrong with your child," Wilson says. Alexandra, who had always been an honor student, had just left her after-school algebra tutoring session, which she had begun taking after receiving an F in the course on her report card. "When she walked out of tutoring, she just had this look on her face," Wilson says. "I asked her what was wrong, and she said, 'I just don't get it,' and she started crying."

Wilson, who struggled with algebra herself while in high school, was determined to ensure that her daughter didn't lose her confidence. "If I hadn't gotten discouraged during Algebra 1," she says, "I probably would have continued on to Algebra 2 and trigonometry and all of those other courses that could have made a difference, and I probably would have been able to obtain better employment."

Wilson knew firsthand how important it was for her daughter to understand algebra, but how could she help her, when the teacher who had been providing the instruction and tutoring in school could not? The solution was already in her home. When Alexandra was in sixth grade, her school, where roughly 90 percent of students receive free or reduced lunches, gave her and each of her classmates a free computer packed with educational software from Computers for Youth, a nonprofit organization that provides computers, software, and training to sixth-grade students and their families at low-income schools. Wilson used Help Math, a program installed on her daughter's CFY computer, to learn the math concepts that Alexandra was having trouble with--the same math concepts that she herself had difficulty with as a student--and then tutored Alexandra at home.

"I went through the Foundation 1 and Foundation 2 programs on Help Math, and I learned how to calculate the area and volume of prisms and cylinders," Wilson says. "Alexandra and I sat at home with a can of vegetables, marking the radius and the height. I told her we were going to take our time until she got it. For at least an hour we took turns solving algebra problems, and eventually that light bulb went on in her head, and she understood." Such an effort was not possible before joining the CFY program. To get access to a computer, mother and daughter would have to go to the local library, where computer use was limited to two hours a day.

In no time, Alexandra's teacher began asking her to help her classmates who were still struggling. By her next report card, Alexandra had brought her grade in algebra up to a B and was back on the honor roll.

"The success Lisa had with Alexandria was her success," says Elisabeth Stock, CEO and cofounder of Computers for Youth. "She owns it." As Stock explains, the mission of her organization is to help low-income students do better in school by improving their learning environment at home, and then connecting that environment back to the school. The organization also aims to use technology to encourage students to become self-guided learners and empower families to take a larger role in their children's academic career.

Shared Learning

Dion Rodriguez and Abdelrahman Elsayed are sixth-graders at the Bronx Early College Academy (BECA). Both come from families for whom English is not their first language, and both have used the computers they received through the Computers for Youth program to help their families improve their English skills. Dion's grandmother is still learning to speak English, and she and Dion practice vocabulary together using the CFY computer. Abdel's family is Egyptian and speaks Arabic. He uses the text-to-speech functionality on his CFY computer so that his family members, who understand English but have difficulty reading it, can "listen" to correspondence from the school.

Dion and his mother also spend time together on the computer playing math games. "There's this game where you have to get smaller shapes and form them into bigger shapes, and then put them into figures," Dion says. "We compete and see who gets the high score."

Tanisha Georges, another BECA student, plays math games on the computer with her mother as well. In fact, she thinks the software is just as beneficial to her mother as it is to her. "I think it's good for parents to use the computer programs," she says, "because some parents think that since they're done with school they don't have to use their education anymore, and since they're getting older they might forget things. The computer is good for them."

Tanisha has found that the CFY computer has had a big impact on the way she spends her time at home. "Before, I was bored in my house and all I did was watch TV," she says. "Now I go on the computer all the time. I do my homework, then I go on the CFY games and I study. On the Internet you can search for anything you want. It makes your mind more active. TV just shows you things."

The recreational time the students spend on their CFY computer is just as important to their success as the time spent doing schoolwork, observes Myrna Felix, the outreach coordinator at BECA. She says the students in the program are at the age where they start wanting to be out of the house, hanging out with their friends, and getting into trouble around the neighborhood; it's around this age that academics can become a very low priority.

"Parents have told me that the CFY computer has kept their child inside the house," Felix says. "I think that, above all, means the most to me because when it keeps the child in the house, it keeps them off the street. And this not only keeps them off the street, it keeps their minds busy and active as well."

It's an important mission. Since the 1960s, research has shown that the biggest predictor of student success is the home learning environment, yet because it is difficult for schools to influence what happens in the home, much of the focus in improving education has fallen on factors like classroom size and teacher training. "The home learning environment is an incredibly fertile ground for making change," Stock says, "and with technology we can do something that's both low-cost and effective."

Founded in 1999, Computers for Youth works with schools in low-income areas to provide a free "home learning center" to sixth-grade students. Along with receiving the CFY computer and software, participating families in New York City also have the option of obtaining heavily discounted broadband Internet service, through Time Warner or Cablevision, as part of the NYC Connected Learning initiative. CFY is working to set up similar broadband opportunities nationwide. The organization also provides free bilingual, 24-hour tech support to participating families nationwide.

The CFY program is open to schools where 75 percent or more of the students qualify for free or reduced lunch. Eligible schools must complete a rigorous application process, and, if selected, the school pays a fee that covers 15 percent of CFY's expenditures--the costs that come with supplying computers and training to the school's participating sixth-grade students and their families, and providing professional development to the school's teachers and administrators. Although budgets are tightening across the country, the fee has yet to deter eligible schools from applying for the program.

"Even in this economic climate, we have far more schools interested in participating than we can handle," Stock says. "The rigorous application process helps us find the schools where we feel like CFY will have the biggest impact."

Like Young Middle School, the Bronx Early College Academy (BECA) was one of those schools that showed potential. Located in the South Bronx, one of the poorest areas in New York City, the school is currently in the second year of its partnership with CFY. "The nice thing about the CFY application process," says BECA Principal John Barnes, "is that it's a yearly acceptance. I have a partnership with CFY, but I realize that partnership is only as good as the efforts I put in during the year, and that CFY is going to be judging, assessing, and evaluating those efforts. It makes you hungry to do a really good job." In October, Barnes' school achieved a milestone when it became the first CFY school to have 100 percent of its eligible sixth-grade students and their families participate in the program.

Myrna Felix is the outreach coordinator at BECA, and it was her efforts, with help from the school's administration, faculty, and staff, that led to the school's 100 percent participation rate. "I called the homes of all of the sixth-graders, and the parents were a little bit skeptical when I told them that they could get a free home learning center. But I explained, in English or Spanish, what this program would do for their children and how it would benefit them, and as the weeks went by I kept tallying up the number of confirmations, and, sure enough, we got 100 percent."

Contrast that number to the participation rate at Young Middle School, where in each of the four years the school has partnered with CFY, about 80 percent of the 6th-grade students and their families have opted to participate in the program. (The average CFY participation rate is 85 percent).

"You'd think it's obvious that you're going to get a high participation rate, because it's a free computer," Stock says, "but we've actually found the opposite." She says she often hears of conversations with families who are suspicious about the program, thinking that it must be a scam. "It's not so simple, especially in these lower-income communities, to suddenly have everybody believing that this program is for real. The school personnel and our staff do a lot of outreach, getting to the families, informing them as to what's happening, and making sure that everything is in the appropriate language so that the parents can participate."

A Selection of Software

Each Computers for Youth computer has an image on its hard drive that includes more than 30 pieces of educational software; CFY has negotiated a deal with software vendors to distribute their software for free to families participating in its program. The organization has built an easy-to-navigate platform for the software so that families can quickly see which program is related to English, which is for math, and so on. "All of this software is probably valued at $600 to $800, and we're able to provide it for free to all of the families we serve," says CFY CEO Elisabeth Stock.

In addition, CFY has created a Web site that identifies the best free educational software available online. CFY families are also provided with free subscriptions to online educational services such as Kaplan's Fast Track, Mangahigh math software, and DreamBox Learning.

Niyjah Moore, a student at Bronx Early College Academy, a participating CFY school, says she enjoys Real Lives, a program that allows players to experience what life is like for people of different genders, cultures, and class. "You get to take place in another person's shoes to learn how they live and go through things that they'd go through," she says.

BECA students Tanisha Georges and Abdelrahman Elsayed are avid players of World of Goo, a puzzle game involving gooey talking blobs that incorporates principles of physics. "I like World of Goo because it keeps my brain active," Tanisha says. "Like, when I'm bored in the house, sometimes I'll go on World of Goo and it keeps me entertained."

"In World of Goo," Abdelrahman adds, "you need to use your mind to find a lot of ways to put the goo balls together in order to complete the four levels. It's entertaining to me, and also it uses science."

While BECA student Dion Rodriguez is fond of the game as well, he recognizes the importance of using the computer to get down to business. "My favorite computer game is World of Goo," he says, "but the one that's most useful to me is Help Math. I'm good at math and I want to excel so I can show my true potential."

What does it mean for a student and family to participate in the CFY program? It's not as simple as just bringing home a free computer. Once a school is accepted into the program, CFY assigns it a certain number of Saturday family-learning workshop days, based on the number of students participating in the school. "We can typically serve about 120 to 150 students, and their parents, per Saturday," Stock explains.

At the four-hour training day, the school's principal and the CFY team gather the students and their parents in an auditorium or cafeteria and explain the program and the day's agenda. Then, they disperse the families to assigned classrooms where groups of computers have been set up, each marked with a student's name.

But it's not time to take home those computers yet. The remainder of the day is spent with a CFY trainer, who demonstrates the installed software and then uses sample projects to train the parents along with the students in using the technology. "You're not just giving away something for free," Young Middle School Principal Thomas Kenner explains. "The parents have to invest time and energy into the training, and they have to pledge that they're going to monitor their children's use of the computer to make sure that they're spending the bulk of their time on it on educational issues."

The purpose of the family learning workshop is not to explain the basics of how a computer works. "Sixth-graders today don't have to be taught how to use technology--they just figure it out," Stock says. "The training is designed to help parents be more supportive learning partners with their kids, to give them confidence around helping their kids. We use the family learning workshop to model behavior that we're expecting to happen at home."

It’s a Family AffairJOINT EFFORT A student and parent take part in a Computers for Youth family learning workshop.

Yet, for parents or guardians who are unfamiliar with computers, the session also serves as a non threatening introduction to technology. "I don't think anyone felt inadequate, because the CFY team was so welcoming and helpful," Lisa Wilson says, recalling the family learning workshop she attended at Young Middle School. "It was just a really positive experience throughout the day, and the time flew by."

The workshop offers a rare opportunity for parents to engage with educators outside of the parent-teacher conference. Liz Tracy, a teacher at BECA, served as a teacher representative at the school's CFY workshop in October. "It was an awesome energy," Tracy says, "and it was just incredible to see these parents, who were so excited, working together and collaborating with their child."

It's an energy that can be sustained beyond training day. Barnes notes that this school year, BECA's sixth-grade parents have had the largest turnout at PTA meetings, crediting that to the success of the CFY initiative. "The sixth-grade families really feel we care," he says. "We gave them this tool and this family learning workshop, and they saw that we're invested. We're committed. It's our job to nurture that relationship."

And the school does that, Barnes explains, by ensuring that the skills the students learned during the workshop are acknowledged and encouraged in the classroom. "When they come back to school on that Monday after the family training workshop," he says, "we put out the challenge: 'Who spent the most hours on their computer? What software did you explore?' We have them write reflections and come up with goals and action plans in regard to how they use that tool at home."

In addition to conducting the family learning workshop, CFY works independently with teachers, demonstrating how to use the software installed on its computers and talking about ways that they can incorporate it into their practices and their curriculum. "We're creating a schoolwide innovation plan with the goal of really building this software into our curriculum," Barnes says. "Teachers have been using the software for homework and class work, but we want to make sure it is embedded into the instructional day as well."

What helps make CFY truly effective are the opportunities the program opens up to teachers. When a teacher knows what technology is available in the home, it is much easier to incorporate that technology into the students' schoolwork. "Before CFY, if I'm a typical teacher, I don't know who has a computer at home and who doesn't," Principal Kenner says, "and if they do have a computer, what software does it have on it? Now we have continuity, so we can give assignments or refer students to certain pieces of software for remedial help."

Plus, going back to the importance of getting 100 percent participation among eligible families, the program creates a level playing field for students who traditionally would be at a disadvantage, giving them more control over their own success. "It doesn't matter now if your mom works all night," Barnes says.

"It doesn't matter if you come from a Spanish-speaking family. You now have a tool that will help you get over that barrier. The elevator doesn't have to stop on a specific floor. You can take it as high as you want to go, based on the time you put into it."