Oakland Local

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Education Nonprofit to Help Expand Math, Science Program in Oakland Middle Schools

Barbara Grady/Oakland Local

An OUSD student learns programming at Techbridge.

Oakland Unified School District this week became a beneficiary of a major federal grant that will bring science, technology, engineering and math - STEM - educational experiences to as many as two thousand OUSD students.

It is one of many efforts underway to close a "digital divide" in Oakland in which low-income students have less access to the Internet and connected computers.

The U.S. Department of Education this week awarded a $3 million "Investing in Innovation" grant to Citizens Schools, a non-profit that plans to use it in 23 school districts across the country including Oakland Unified. Citizen Schools winning proposal, Closing Inspiration and Achievement Gaps in STEM with Volunteer-Led Apprenticeships, will set up and expand after-school programs in Oakland to be apprenticeships with tech professionals who would involve them in hands-on engineering and computer science projects.  Citizen Schools will be recruiting tech volunteers in Oakland.

"These hands-on STEM apprenticeships not only help students build skills but also spark their interest in STEM subjects," said Stacey Gilbert Lee of Citizen Schools when asked about the program that has not yet been formally announced. In Oakland, Citizen Schools will expand a program it already started in three middle schools. 

Much is being done in Oakland to try to close the digital divide, with a host of non-profit organizations collaborating with the school district to bring computers into classrooms and train students in digital tools. Yet other organizations work over the summer through summer camps and programs at recreation centers.

This happens as the stakes for being left behind in digital literacy and Internet access become increasingly high in a world that revolves around the Internet. 

"As more information becomes electronic, the inability to get online can leave entire communities at an extremely dangerous disadvantage," notes Kimberly Bryant, founder of Black Girls Who Code, which ran a summer camp in Oakland last June.

Yet, according to estimates of Oakland Mayor Jean Quan's administration and the Pew Research Center, about 50 percent of OUSD children whose families earn less than $30,000 a year do not have Internet access at home. That income is the benchmark for qualifying for the federal free and reduced lunch program and 69 percent of OUSD students qualify.

In a loose survey of West Oakland residents done this year by Oakland Technology Exchange West (OTX), another non-profit working hard to close the digital divide, only 22 percent had both Internet access and a currently working computer. Some had Internet access but not a currently working computer. Others had no computer at home. OTX as the non-profit is called, gives away free computers to OUSD high school and middle school students who take its one afternoon course.

OTX is yet another of the plethora of organizations trying to bridge the divide.

At OTX’s vast West Oakland warehouse, retired IBM executive and OTX founder Bruce Buckelew, along with his small staff of local hires, arrange for thousands of refurbished computers to be delivered to public schools across Oakland.  Collecting computers from corporations when they replace their stock and then refurbishing them to new condition, OTX through the years has provided 35,000 computers to Oakland school children and low-income adults. It has delivered 18,000 computers to OUSD schools alone, charging the school district about $240 per computer. Then it has handed out another 17,000 to Oakland kids who come with a parent to take a one-afternoon computer course in computer basics at OTX's plant. OTX has also supplied free computers to adults who volunteer time refurbishing donated computers.

Then there's the work of Techbridge. On a recent afternoon at Oakland Technical High School, 25 girls hovered over computers and small robots, working on html coding and figuring out how to arrange gears on the robots so they will move to software commands. Teenagers, the girls are part of the Techbridge after school program at Oak Tech, which is one of nine sites Tech Bridge operates in Oakland with the aim of getting girls interested in math, science and computer programming. For many of the students, the sessions are the first time they've used computers for other than email and viewing YouTube.

In yet another part of Oakland on weekday afternoons, Media Enterprise Alliance hosts dozens of high school students in an OUSD linked learning program about video production. One recent afternoon, four students were editing footage on a wide Mac computer monitor using professional quality Final Cut Pro software, while other students were synching sound with visuals at another computer and a third team filmed an interview. Their project is about gang injunctions in Oakland. If it turns out well, the film might be aired by KQED, said Jeff Key, Media Enterprise Alliance executive director.  

Oakland City Government itself is on a bandwagon to bridge the digital divide.  Last year it launched "Get Connected Oakland" with the help of OTX and a federal program. Get Connected put 1,500 Internet connected computers in two public places within Oakland Housing Authority campuses.  

Additionally, it began promoting the federal "Internet Essentials" program rolled out by Comcast Cable Co. Through Internet Essentials, low income families can purchase Internet access for $9.95 a month and a refurbished computer for $150 if children in the family qualify for the federal free and reduced lunch program.

Quan said she launched Get Connected because too many Oakland residents were being left behind in the digital world.  “For 40 percent of Oaklanders, the public library is their most consistent way of getting online,” she said when launching Get Connected Oakland in April of 2011.

Gilbert Lee of the Citizen Schools program that learned this week it will receive the $3 million in federal money, said a divide threatens the national economy in addition to individuals.

"We are finding across the country in low income communities there is a digital divide. As a country, we need more STEM professionals but we are not preparing our students to become STEM professionals."

It will be seeking volunteers in computer and science fields to help its program in Oakland. Visit Citizen Schools for details.


Source: Oakland Local []

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