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Using Computers in Low-Income Schools

By Howard Rheingold

"Most schools would spend $5000 on one or two fancy computers. I know where the same money could buy me one hundred IBM XTs with hard drives instead. They cost $5000 each, ten years ago. But you don't need a state of the art computer to turn kids into writers or artists, or show them how to learn their multiplication tables with a spreadsheet."
Ray Porter grinned and pointed to a bookshelf full of books that kids at San Francisco's Malcolm X Academy had written, illustrated, designed, and desktop published. Digitized photos of very widely grinning kids were at the top of the pages they had written. Those were the faces of kids who had been given the opportunity to use technology to express themselves. They were kids who were commanding the machine, instead of being fed by it, or fed to it.
If we had 1000 Ray Porters, I believe we might make a dent in the problem of illiteracy. We might even end up sending some kids to college who might otherwise have gone to San Quentin or the cemetery. There was a photo-collage at the community center in San Francisco's Hunter's Point, Youth Park where I first met Ray Porter, educational technology consultant to the San Francisco Unified School District, and his colleagues Lynn Lin, computer resource teacher, and Janelle Pierce, community technology teacher. Near the room where Janelle's kids use computers to study French and research their homework online, the photo-commemoration displays the faces of 35 young people from the neighborhood who had died violently in recent years.

If we had 1000 Ray Porters we might send kids to college who might otherwise have gone to San Quentin or the cemetery.

Ray Porter buys obsolete computers by the hundreds and helps students at the most impoverished public schools become authors, artists, and publishers. His biggest problem right now is finding computer-knowledgeable volunteers to teach teachers and kids how to use the "toasternets" he patches together from scrounged equipment. And he can always use more scrounged equipment: "I could use 10,000 used computers" says Ray.

Most people who accomplish difficult tasks against heavy odds tend to be either armored or abrasive. Ray Porter is truly a gentle soul, a big guy with a smile that has worn the right kind of lines in his face. Ray Porter is a working idealist who knows exactly how to use computers to attack a serious social problem -- the growing gap between the information haves and have-nots. Porter works in San Francisco's "consent decree" schools. His mandate is to design technology programs that will make a difference.

I was introduced to Ray by Daniel Ben-Horin, executive director of CompuMentor, a non-profit organization that puts non-profit organizations together with computer-savvy mentors who help them set up mailing lists and databases, publish newsletters, network with constituents and colleagues. I had asked Dan to keep his eye open for somebody who really knew how to use computer technology to reach kids. While most people agree that knowledge of how to use computers will be a key survival skill in the coming years, the idea that introducing computers to classrooms could solve any of our serious educational problems has been in disrepute ever since the first personal computers were introduced into classrooms with such zeal ten years ago.

kindergarteners told family recipes to fifth grade buddies

Ben-Horin brought me to meet Ray Porter at Malcolm X Academy to show me something special. Ray had networked 30 prehistoric Apple IIe computers and showed kids and teachers how to use them for word processing. Judy Lujan, the school's current computer teacher has continued developing this writing focus at Malcolm X, working with teachers and students to author and publish student books. Under the direction of teachers Linda Elliott and Jim Lowe, kindergarteners told family recipes to fifth grade buddies, who would type them into the word processor. A printer and 486 computer at the computer lab enabled the students to combine the text with scanned photos of the kids. "The Kindergarten Cookbook" was one of thirty books kids at Malcolm X desktop published last year.
Ray's, and Ray's kids, critical need now is for volunteer mentors -- folks who will work with public school teachers and who know desktop publishing, (if you know DOS dtp that's a bonus!). If you can help, contact Stephen Brown at CompuMentor, 89 Stillman St., San Francisco, CA 94107, 415-512-7784, fax-415-512-9629, Hardware mentors and telecom mentors are needed too. So are bulk donations of computers and modems. You can reach Ray at

Copyright 1994, Howard Rheingold
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