Tired of facing shortages of qualified workers and spending billions on training, Corporate America is teaming up with schools in new efforts to close the "digital divide" --- and prepare kids for work in the real world.
From the time he steps out of the Metro station in Anacostia on his way home from high school, Kevin Robinson is in a hurry.
The ninth grader hurries because the day is cold. He hurries because his Washington, D.C., neighborhood is across the Potomac River and far away from the amusements downtown. He hurries because he fears the teenagers and young men who gather in the parking lots and at the corners.
But mostly he hurries because he's worried he won't get enough time online before the community center in the basement of his parents' subsidized apartment building closes for the night. Kevin wants to be an automotive engineer when he grows up, and he now spends much of his free time using the Internet to check out colleges and look up sites where he can sharpen his math skills and practice taking the SAT.
Kevin is luckier than a lot of the kids who live in Anacostia. The neighborhood of low-rise apartment blocks is renowned for one of the worst crime rates in the country. Yet it was just this environment that attracted a new organization named PowerUP to locate one of its pilot projects here, in the Southern Ridge Apartments. A partnership among some of the world's largest high-tech companies and leading inner-city community groups, PowerUP has equipped the center with 18 geared-up Gateway PCs, and the latest and fastest links to the Internet. The children and teenagers who are members get free tutoring, free snacks, and free AOL accounts.
Kevin may be one of the first children living in a poor neighborhood to benefit from PowerUP's efforts, but he will hardly be the last. Since it was conceived two years ago by Colin Powell, the retired general and now U.S. Secretary of State, and AOL Time Warner Chairman Steve Case, the group has set a goal of bringing the Internet to 15 million American kids within five years. And PowerUP is only one of a rapidly growing number of endeavors by U.S. businesses to improve the technological "literacy" of children who study in schools they consider substandard or in schools that cannot afford the best equipment, or who live in homes where parents cannot afford any computers at all.
Forty-four years ago, the panic that followed the Soviet launch of the satellite Sputnik soon led to a big push to improve the teaching of science in America's schools. Fifteen years ago, it was envy of Japan's then seemingly invincible economy that led to campaigns to upgrade basic math and English courses. These days, the perceived threat is closer to home - a so-called "digital divide" between the average American grade-school student, who has access to good computers both at home and school, and those who don't. Computer illiteracy, the fear goes, will only exacerbate many of the divisions that already exist in American society.