WASHINGTON – Before the Living Classroom Weinberg Education Center opened, some disadvantaged youth in the heart of Baltimore had never sat in front of a computer, let alone surfed the Web.
Now, those same youth learn the latest in computer technology and teach it to their parents. They log on to the Internet and talk with sailors traveling the globe, and with other kids oceans away. They even post a newsletter on-line, using a digital camera to give it a fresher touch.
The technology available to them “was blowing their minds,” said Christine Truett, director of the center.
Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Baltimore, is proud of the center and said she hopes to start more like it throughout the nation, through the $1.3 billion National Digital Empowerment Act. The bill, which was introduced Thursday, is aimed at closing the “digital divide” between rich and poor, and making all children computer literate before entering eighth grade.
The NDEA calls for increased funding to train teachers and librarians in the latest technology, and to help schools purchase up-to-date resources. It also would provide funding to wire schools and libraries, making them Internet accessible.
The bill also would provide funding to help adults who are out of the technology loop. It pledges to bring together a host of volunteers to train students and low-income earners, and to construct community centers in public housing developments where residents would have access to up-to-date technology.
Rep. Albert Wynn, D-Largo, said the digital divide has the greatest impact on low-income earners and those who live in predominantly non-white neighborhoods, who are virtually are being left out of the Information Age.
Wynn, who was on hand Thursday to support Mikulski’s bill, said he sees that divide in his own district, which includes parts of Montgomery and Prince George’s counties.
“Montgomery County is in the top three counties in the state” for having computers available to students, he said. “Prince George’s County is next to last, after Baltimore City.”
“In Maryland, we don’t have enough money to bring technology to the classroom,” Mikulski said. “Some schools have one computer for five kids,” while others have one computer for hundreds of students, she said.
“The best anti-poverty program is education,” said Mikulski. “Those who have access to technology and its tools will have access to a better future.”
Mikulski said that in a $1 trillion budget, the $1.3 billion price tag for her bill is “so modest in terms of what it will mean for our future.” Funding for the program will not come from additional taxes but “through reallocation of education funds,” said Johanna Ramos-Boyer, a Mikulski spokeswoman.
Sister Charmaine Krohe of the St. Ambrose Family Outreach Center in Baltimore said that providing computer literacy is “an expensive endeavor.” But providing Internet and technology access to children and low-income earners is “almost as critical as a family having access to phones,” she said.
St. Ambrose offers computer training and academic research assistance. The center had to revamp its facilities to make them Internet accessible, and Sister Krohe said extra financial assistance is necessary to keep facilities and equipment up-to-date.
“So often we providers are given second-hand things,” she said. “It’s not that I’m not a grateful person, but in the world of technology, you have to have the up-to-date resources … to compete on the level with everyone else.”
Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Baltimore, who was on hand Thursday to support Mikulski’s bill, called the digital divide an “issue of the haves and the have nots.”
“We want to make sure that every single person is touched by the Internet,” he said.