Tomarrow's Workforce

How one inner-city program is trying to give kids the skills they need -- and the ones you need, too.

By Samuel Fromartz

Washington, D.C - One evening in June, 17-year-old Vincent Hawkins was clicking through a Web site he had constructed, which was devoted to two of his passions: professional wrestling and an animated television show known as Dragon Ball. Nothing unusual for a teenager, except the setting. He was sitting at an IBM PC with a Pentium II processor in the Perry School Community Services Center, located in the neighborhood of Washington, D.C., known as Northwest No. 1. The area's grim moniker is one of the legacies of a 1960s urban-renewal plan that had the unfortunate but not uncommon result of rendering the area economically desolate, making it the second-poorest in the nation's capital.

The center is housed in a former public-school building that had been abandoned for more than 25 years before a consortium of community organizations reclaimed it. In 1998, the Perry School began offering health care and then in 1999 added social services, job training and placement, day care, and after-school programs, including computer instruction at its Networked Learning Center.

The school is just around the corner from a block of 29 newly built owner-occupied town houses, one of two affordable-housing projects in the predominantly black neighborhood. The Perry School and the new houses are the exceptions, however, in an economic backwater just five minutes from the Capitol, an area where the median income is $12,400 a year. There are more than 1,500 units of public and subsidized housing within half a mile of the center. There's not a major supermarket or drugstore nearby.

Hawkins, a handsome, soft-spoken youth with a powerful athletic physique, was dragged into the center by a friend earlier this year when high school football season was over. Hawkins didn't have a PC at home and had little exposure to computers at school, although he had tried surfing the Web at a public library.

That lack of computer literacy had already affected his job prospects. "When I applied for a job at Blockbuster last summer, they asked me, 'Can you use a computer?'" he recalls. "I said, 'I can type my name. That's about it.' No one would hire me." Since then Hawkins has attended an after-school computer-learning program at the Perry School. But the aim isn't simply to help him qualify for a job at a retail store, although that could well be an option.

This summer, after several months in the program, Hawkins was teaching younger grade-school-aged children at the center. A few weeks earlier he'd made what was for him an unheard-of $10 an hour helping to inventory all the PCs in the community center. With several other teens, he checked available memory, hard-drive space, and network cards to see whether the machines could be upgraded. "We were competing with each other to see who could do a PC the fastest," he says. "I finally learned all those things people were talking about with computers."

A talented football player at Dunbar High School in the district, Hawkins still hopes for a potential college-sports scholarship or a career in acting. But just in case those shoot-the-moon dreams fail to pan out, dabbling with his Web site and creating digital movies with his classmates are helping him acquire the knowledge that might open up broader opportunities, ones that will allow him to leave the neighborhood that the Perry School serves.

"We're bringing technology to areas where people don't have access to it," says Networked Learning Center director Kelly Gainer, a compact and energetic young woman who speaks passionately about the program. "And they're not just learning computer skills. I expect them to go beyond that so they can have the confidence to go beyond the average job."

Gainer had been working as a manager at MCI for five years when she read an article in the Washington Post with the headline "Sometimes Money Is Not Enough," which featured an inner-city high-tech program called Martha's Table. She quit her MCI job and worked at Martha's Table for two and a half years before leaving to head up the Perry School program in 1998. With two assistants and 15 PCs, Gainer runs a program for children ages 6 through 13, heads a program for teens, and oversees an adult job-training workshop. "This is my calling," she says simply.

Gainer isn't merely a gatekeeper of information and knowledge. She's more like a coach, urging students to figure things out, work with others, make decisions, try, fail, and succeed -- whether the subject is building a Web site, editing digital photographs, or creating an animated story.

"The learning is so much richer and so much more real because this is how you participate in the world," says Candy Taaffe, learning program specialist at the Morino Institute, the lead organization that helped create the Networked Learning Center under a two-year pilot program. "You ask questions, you create, you're critical of images that are put in front of you. This type of learning is very different from a kid sitting in front of a computer with headphones on."

It also provides the kind of critical knowledge that is in high demand in the new economy, not least of all among fast-growing start-ups. Those companies want employees who can take initiative, work well in teams, attack problems, make decisions, and accomplish tasks. In short, they want workers who know how to learn.

"There isn't a digital divide; it's a cognitive divide, between those who can solve problems and those who cannot," says Jane M. Healy, author of Failure to Connect: How Computers Affect Our Children's Minds -- and What We Can Do About It. "There's a schism as the workplace demands more complex cognitive skills for the jobs of the future." According to the Department of Education, there are 257 federally funded community-technology centers in the nation. Even so, President Clinton has requested $100 million for fiscal 2001 to fund 280 more.

The Perry School's center didn't start out with the express goal of changing the way its students thought. Rather, Paul McElligott, the executive director of Perry School Community Services Center Inc., says it began with a simple request by community members to help them learn computer skills. But two years ago, as the Perry School began talking with the Morino Institute about a technology center, it became clear that the facility would become more than a bunch of PCs, printers, and part-time instructors.

While researching her book, Healy found that technology-education programs that simply offered computers were wanting. Educators were often enamored of glitzy technology but too often failed to integrate it into the school curriculum in a meaningful way. Part of that had to do with the educational software that companies were developing. Students were often reduced to pointing and clicking through less-than-inspiring exercises with the real goal of "winning" the chance to play a computer game at the end.

Robert Price, a former elementary-school teacher from Brooklyn, N.Y., also works with school districts and nonprofits, including the Morino Institute, to incorporate technology into their learning programs. He too has found that schools often fail to consider the way that computers will be used within the curriculum. "The biggest debates in school districts are over whether to buy Macs or PCs," he says. "What they aren't talking about is what they're going to use the computers for."

The Morino Institute, based in Reston, Va., was founded by former software entrepreneur Mario Morino, who wanted to fund inner-city after-school programs to test a different approach to improving computer literacy: Could the Internet be used both to make a nonprofit organization more effective and to improve its after-school learning activities?

The institute chose the Perry School and three other nonprofits for its two-year Youth Development Collaborative Pilot. The organizations would be linked by electronic mailing lists and Web-based communications so that all four centers could share experiences, lessons, and problem solving. "It's clearly enhanced the capability of all the organizations," says McElligott, who had not used E-mail himself until 1998. The institute also helped design the actual centers, spending $175,000 to $200,000 on each for the first-year start-up costs, which included hardware, networking, high-speed Internet access, and software.

Many of the instructors in the after-school program didn't have the educational skills to develop lesson plans or even deal effectively with the kids. So last year the institute spent another $30,000 to hire educational consultants from the Bank Street College of Education, the Center for Children and Technology, and the National Urban Alliance, all in New York City. The consultants focused on helping the instructors improve their educational techniques and also provided examples of the ways that computers could be used in project-based learning. "Before they arrived, we would spend about two weeks on a lesson plan," Gainer says. "Now we can create one in 20 minutes if we have to."

Price, the educational consultant from Brooklyn, for instance, ran workshops that included ways to use digital cameras and animation programs in projects. But he also focused on skills, such as how to foster group dynamics or manage the creative chaos of a classroom without stifling it. Gainer then put the lessons to work at the Perry School. Children used a digital camera to take photos of one another, edited them using Adobe Photoshop, and created captions for them on the computer. They then printed out the results and plastered them across their schoolhouse walls.

In another instance, the older-teen workshop made a 30-second film on playground violence, first deciding on the functions they needed to fill (such as director, writer, and actors) and then collectively working out storyboards and a production schedule for the short drama. Students also learned to use a program called Kid Pix to create animated stories, which they did last winter for a monthlong Christmas project. They've used Microsoft Word to write reports and Excel spreadsheets to graph out classroom opinion polls, such as "Which cookies are most popular?" "They really liked that one because they also got to eat the cookies," Gainer says.

"We've been thinking about computers as a tool, in the same way we think about a pencil, a crayon, and reading aloud," Taaffe says. "The computers are not the center of the activity; they kind of fade into all the activities the kids are doing there."

Nurturing that philosophy is crucial if a computer-learning center strives to offer students more than just the technical nuts and bolts of working on the machines. "You can use technology to support a kind of drill-and-practice learning that will raise standardized-test scores among students who really do it a lot," says Cornelia Brunner, associate director of the Center for Children and Technology, in New York City, who also worked as a consultant for the Morino Institute. "The problem is, they haven't learned a whole lot."

Brunner argues that such a rote, skills-based approach will actually increase the digital divide because it fosters a more rigid type of learning. Students who learn within this model won't develop the ability to work with others, think critically, and expand their creativity, she believes. Instead, they will be trained for the repetitive tasks -- like data entry -- generally found in low-wage jobs.

A more holistic approach, however, is harder to teach -- it's more time-consuming and more expensive. It's also more difficult to measure. Donors or parents looking for concrete results might not be able to assess group interaction, problem solving, or research skills as easily as multiple-choice tests measure rote skills. "You have to be more patient," Brunner says, "because it's part of a larger developmental process rather than a single result tied to a single intervention."

But the prize, proponents believe, is also that much greater. The process of a child's creating and revising a project amounts to "huge ownership of the learning process," Taaffe says. "They're getting opportunities to have opinions and make those opinions known to their community and outside world."

To be sure, a teen like Hawkins who can now build a Web site, create a spreadsheet, and use E-mail to communicate has the skills to work in a good-paying job, let alone at a Blockbuster outlet. And in a neighborhood facing the daily challenges of poverty and crime, the value of those skills cannot be emphasized enough. "We want kids to be gaining experience and skills so they can participate in the new economy," Taaffe says. "But I also want to see kids having experiences where they are gaining self-esteem and confidence. Here they're actually creating something, teaching others, and thinking about the ways they can become productive citizens."

Copyright © Samuel Fromartz 2000. All rights reserved. First published in Inc. Technology, Oct. 15, 2000