Free computer classes at D.C. libraries help bridge digital divide

May 7, 2011

On her first day of computer class at the Anacostia Public Library, Tekia Harrod worried she would break something. And she was confused by the terminology being thrown around. Cache? Cookies? Toolbar?

“I’ve been afraid of computers forever,” said Harrod, 34, who was especially nervous because she’d missed the first class and already felt behind. “It was very intimidating because I didn’t understand it.”

But she was determined to overcome her fears to solve a far more pressing problem: a year of unemployment that had landed Harrod in a homeless shelter for two months while she was pregnant. The former receptionist has five kids, but only the youngest, a 5-month-old girl, lives with her. The boys, between the ages of four and 16, are with their grandparents.

“I get $336 a month from welfare. I’m really struggling,” Harrod said. “I have bills to pay.”

In a part of the District where one in four people are unemployed and the digital divide remains huge, the D.C. Public Library is using $3 million in federal grant money to teach Harrod and hundreds of other residents how to use computers. The goal is to train 1,600 people by the end of 2012.

So far, 430 students have enrolled in PC Basics, which is offered at five public libraries, and 145 have graduated. The oldest student in the program is 86. The youngest, 20.

The average income for enrolled participants is $7,300, according to library records. About 41 percent have graduated from high school, and 83 percent are African American.

When they finish the class, students receive a donated, refurbished computer with the software that they were trained to use. The students who qualify by income level also receive free broadband for a year.

“We believe there is a correlation between Internet access, computer ownership and employment rates,” said Chris Tonjes, the library system’s chief information officer, who thinks there are direct and indirect benefits to the program. “The direct benefit is people get exposure to computers, they gain computer skills, they potentially get jobs. The indirect benefit is, instead of being sort of isolated because they don’t have access to the digital superhighway, they are now connected.”

Harrod, who lives in Southeast D.C., has a computer at home but no Internet connection. A year ago, her godmother created a profile on Facebook for her, but Harrod couldn’t keep it updated because she didn’t understand it.

“I knew how to navigate the Internet somewhat. I could look for something on Google, but there was so much information, I didn’t know where to go to next. It was so overwhelming,” she said. “I got very lost, all the time.”

During a class at the Anacostia Library, the teacher, Kyle Johnson, 26, used a projector to show Harrod and 10 other students how to insert pictures in a Word document.

“Look how crazy this is,” said Johnson, rotating the image upside down. The class was amazed and answered in unison: “Wow!”

“It’s really rewarding to see people’s faces when they have that ah-ha moment, when they can actually figure something out, when they realize that they don’t have to be afraid of technology and doing simple things on a computer,” Johnson said.

The instructor also demonstrated how to insert text around the picture. “There’s a name for that,” Johnson said. “It’s called text wrapping.”

Soon, the class was ready to move forward to the most important lesson of the day: Web forms. Once Harrod and her classmates mastered check boxes, text fields and drop down boxes, they could apply for jobs online. The teacher suggested one company’sWeb site.

“They have now 50,000 jobs! Look at all these options here,” she said. “And they are hiring in D.C.”

Some students smiled at their screens.

“First name, last name, birth month, birth day, last 4 SSN, e-mail,” the teacher points out at the wall with the big projection. “Look at that! You’re putting your application, using a Web form.”

Afterward, Harrod was already hopeful.

“I’ve just had my resume completed. On a computer!” she said. “I would love to find a job where I could be at an entry level, where I could be taught. If I can be taught, I can do it. I just need somebody to give me a chance.”

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