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Program helps students hone skills, build computers
In the Know

A program to help needy kids learn about and own computers is booting up across Texas. The Dell TechKnow program helps prepare middle-school students around the state for a tech-savvy future.

In 1998, Dell started TechKnow in Denver as a pilot program called "Learn and Earn." The after-school program teaches computer skills to middle school students who are likely to drop out of school or who come from low-income families. Graduates get to take home a computer of their own.

Students selected for the program attend a 40-hour, self-paced course designed by Dell to teach computer basics. While enrolled, students must have good attendance and behavior at school and must improve their grades.

At the end of the course, students who can disassemble and assemble a computer, load and use software, identify and correct basic hardware problems and upgrade computer hardware earn a refurbished Dell computer with an operating system and software.

In 2002, Dell changed the name of the program to Dell TechKnow and offered it nationwide as a two-year grant program. Austin Independent School District (ISD) and Laredo ISD applied for the program and were accepted as participants.

Dell spokesperson Michele Glaze said 174 students have graduated from the Austin and Laredo ISD programs since fall 2002. Nationwide, more than 2,100 students have completed the program.

Dell is now expanding the program in Texas.

Motherboards of motivation
Art Limon, Laredo ISD's Dell TechKnow coordinator, said the program gained popularity quickly.

"Last year, we began with one campus," said Limon. "Of 16 students participating initially, 15 graduated. This semester, we're on five campuses with 72 students."

The Laredo program is held on 10 Saturdays as a four-hour course.

"We feel this an ideal motivational tool for our population," he said. "It gives them a measure of responsibility, and the payoff is something that's very viable and concrete for them."

Limon said students who completed the course improved their grades in their regular classes. Some students got their first taste of real-world success as a result of the program.

"Many of the students that have graduated from the program have been hired by the district to reimage computers," said Limon. Reimaging a computer involves erasing the hard drive and reinstalling software when the computer isn't working properly.

The Austin program is similarly successful. Austin ISD's Dell TechKnow started with four campuses in 2002 and will be at seven in 2004.

"We've had 152 grads [since the program started in 2002]," said Jeff Meyer, Austin ISD's director of instructional technology. He said the opportunity for kids with few financial resources to contribute to their families is also a motivator.

"They're doing something that benefits their families and parents since these computers come home to their families," he said. Austin Dell TechKnow graduate Yuricel Lopez agreed.

"I use my computer for many things," Lopez said. "I type papers, do research projects and even use it to have fun and play games. Not just that it helps me, but it also helped my mother. She did not know how to use a computer, and I had to show her, and without [the computer from Dell] I probably would not have been able to show her."

Footing the bill
Dell TechKnow is a partnership between Dell, school districts and community sponsors. Dell provides the computers used in the classes, the curriculum and help in getting the program started. School districts provide classroom space and teachers to present the program.

"We find school teachers are incredible as after-school instructors," said Glaze. She said district teachers can help make the course consistent with the students' schoolwork, and they know the students.

In Laredo, the district uses campus technology trainers, Limon said. These instructors also train classroom teachers to integrate technology in the classroom, so they know how technology is used in the students' regular classes.

In Texas, Glaze said TechKnow is funded by Dell, and a variety of private individuals and foundations. In 2004, TechKnow will take on a new partner to help fund and expand the program in Texas and will no longer use two-year grants.

"We're moving to a new model," said Glaze. "In Texas, that model is a partnership with the Texas Computer Education Association (TCEA). TCEA is the largest organization in the state of Texas that is a nonprofit, nongovernmental entity that is committed to integrating technology into the classroom."

TCEA will oversee the application process and coordinate the expansion of the program in Texas, and will provide monetary help for selected districts.

"TCEA will help with administrative funding," said Glaze. Those expenses can include paying teachers or paying for snacks or transportation.

"Typically the schools have had to underwrite that themselves," said Glaze. "But the TCEA/Dell partnership will be able to help with that funding."

In the middle
Dell and TCEA will select the school districts that will offer the program, and the districts will choose which students participate.

Glaze said TechKnow targets middle-school students who are eligible for free and reduced-price lunch programs.

"Statistics show that those students don't have the same access to technology as families with higher incomes," Glaze said. "Typically, the statistics for Dell TechKnow show 80 to 90 percent of the students have been African-American or Hispanic."

Glaze said the program targets middle-school children because those students are open to learning technology, and for some students, waiting until high school may be too late.

"In middle school, for many low-income and at-risk students, that's when they make the decision as to whether high school is relevant in their lives," she said.

Limon said the class helps students focus their high school efforts toward either academic or vocational studies and helps them develop skills such as attending class regularly, staying on task and adhering to an academic curriculum.

"This is molding the students for future endeavors in high school," Limon said.

He said the program also gives students confidence. Meyer said the small setting of the class is a plus.

"One-on-one mentoring experiences are very helpful to middle school students," he said. "I think that's an important time to address--to help with the transition from what's a pretty nurtured environment in elementary to a much less nurturing environment in high school."

Jump on board
School districts interested in participating in the program can apply online through April 15 at Dell will announce selected districts in May, and schools can have the program up and running as early as fall 2004. Glaze said Dell will select eight to 10 schools, depending on how much funding the program has from contributors by the time the company selects participants.

Glaze said interested school districts should serve a large population of low-income students and be able to establish and sustain the program with community partnerships.

"TechKnow is more than just a tech class," she said. "It's about inspiring low-income and middle school students to think differently about their world. It's very empowering for them."

Suzanne Staton