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Without ready access to computers, students struggle
Even wealthy Fairfax is forced to contend with a digital divide

By Annie Gowen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 6, 2009; A01

Julija Pivoriunaite's heart sinks when one of her teachers at Glasgow Middle School announces that students must go online to do a homework assignment. It happens almost every school day.

The 11-year-old's mind whirls with the complicated and stressful options available to get her assignments done, since her family has no reliable Internet service at home. She could work after classes in her Fairfax County school's computer lab, but it is open just two days a week. The library has free computers, but time online is limited if it's busy. Finding rides is tough.

"I see my friends do their work, and I struggle to get the access I need. It makes me sad," said Julija, a hoodie-wearing blonde whose fluent English gives little hint that she emigrated from Lithuania a few years ago. She asks her parents for high-speed Internet, and the answer is always the same: Soon, soon, but money's tight.

The digital divide has narrowed dramatically in the past decade. About two-thirds of American households report using the Internet at home, according to the U.S. Census. In affluent Washington suburbs, the numbers are higher; more than 90 percent of Fairfax households with children have home computers, according to a recent survey by the school system.

But even in Fairfax, the digital divide lives on in the study carrels of the Woodrow Wilson public library in the Falls Church area. Most afternoons, it is crowded with students from low-income or immigrant families using the computers. Although they live in one of the richest counties in the United States, these students recount skipping lunch to work at school labs or making long journeys to the public library after school.

Such effort is necessary because students are doing much of their work online: reading textbooks, watching podcasts, using discussion boards and creating PowerPoint presentations. The most frequently searched-for Internet term in the Washington area this year is "fcps blackboard," according to Google. That's the Fairfax County system on which teachers post homework assignments and study guides, children ask questions or participate in discussion groups, and parents monitor class work.

Henry Jenkins, a professor at the University of Southern California, describes today's digital divide as the "participation gap" -- the chasm between students who have ready access to the Internet at home vs. those struggling to work in public spaces. Those with home access have a big advantage because they'll have ample time to develop social networking, research and other skills necessary to succeed later on, Jenkins said.

'Barrier to the world'

Without a computer, "there's a kind of a wall, a barrier to the world," said Ying Wu, 18, a senior at J.E.B. Stuart High School in Falls Church.

She earned a 4.2 GPA in the school's International Baccalaureate program despite the fact that she did not have a computer at home until recently. She says she earned high marks for coping skills, such as writing her papers in longhand and then typing them "so fast" at school. She filched her sister's library card to extend her online time at the library. It's another complicated calculus; cardholders are allowed only two 30-minute increments if others are waiting.

She remembers admiring a classmate's elaborate PowerPoint project on eco-friendly medical technology, trimmed with pictures of doctors and solar panels, that she would never have had time to do. She worked at a bookstore this summer so she could buy herself a computer.

"This is the most expensive thing I have," Wu said, touching the $700 laptop. "It's the whole point of my world."

School administrators said they try to accommodate students by opening libraries and computer labs before and after school and at lunch. The district has 103,000 computers, about 90 percent of them available for student use.

But the effort is complicated because many lower-income students take the bus home right after school to care for younger siblings or work jobs to support their families.

"We are limited, unfortunately, because of the situation of many of our students," said Pamela Jones, the principal at J.E.B. Stuart, where 40 percent of students come from other countries and more than half are eligible for free and reduced-cost lunches. "It's hard for them."

This year, the school instituted a 40-minute study period called "Raider Time," built into the school day and aimed at those who can't stay late.

Students without computers said their instructors showed varying degrees of understanding.

"They don't want to hear excuses," said Daritza Perla, 16, a junior at Edison High School in the Alexandria section of Fairfax. She was cited for being tardy earlier this year after an assignment-related delay at the school library.

Her mother, Maria, 49, said that she and her husband, an auto mechanic, would love to buy Daritza a computer but can't afford it. She worries that Daritza misses important news from school by not having e-mail and wishes her daughter was home more instead of constantly at the library.

Complications

Librarians at Woodrow Wilson provided an excuse note for 15-year-old Juan Henriquez after he lost an eight-page paper on the Bill of Rights because his computer session timed out before he'd saved his work.

"I felt mad," Juan said. "I didn't know what I was going to do."

Juan, the son of Salvadoran immigrants, said he prefers working at the library because if he stays after class to work in the school lab he gets too hungry. He usually takes the bus home and eats a quick dinner before heading out to study.

He lives in an apartment complex in the Culmore neighborhood off Route 7 in Fairfax. From there, it's a short walk to Best Buy, where he often goes to look at the laptops.

When a reporter whipped out a BlackBerry, Juan's eyes widened.

"Do you have WiFi on that?" he asked.

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