Roanoke City Public Schools
Can you teach an old dog new tricks? Some say no. Roanoke City Public Schools says, "Yes you can!" And they do more than talk about it.
In the Information Age, one segment of the population in danger of being left behind is senior citizens. Because many are on fixed incomes and no longer have a personal connection to schools, gaining their support can be particularly challenging. As the generation that grew up without technology, they are more likely to question technology expenditures and the cost of public schooling.
In Spring 1996, Highland Park Learning Center Principal John Lensch was given a $500 mini-grant by Superintendent Wayne Harris from a special fund intended to encourage innovative practices. With it, Lensch started a program called Computing Seniors. The goal was to give senior citizens a renewed sense of learning by utilizing idle computers in the magnet school's computer labs during evening hours. Encouraging a politically powerful group to see the value in supporting schools through local and state taxes was an added benefit. An article in a local newspaper produced widespread interest in the initiative. Other educators inquired about starting similar programs. As a result of increased attention, Lensch wrote an article for Educational Leadership, a national education journal, describing how "Computing Seniors" regained confidence in public schools. An August 1997 article in Parade Magazine extended the program's exposure and brought national attention. The program John Lensch piloted at Highland Park, which began with $500 and a few senior citizens, quickly flourished into a citywide program.
In time, the parents of children becoming increasingly skilled with technology expressed a desire to be included in the program. Their children were quickly becoming more experienced with technology than they, using skills the parents themselves did not have. Aware of the need and recognizing an opportunity, Roanoke City Public Schools expanded the program to "Computing Seniors/Computing Parents."
The courses run from 10 to 12 weeks in length and cover such topics as basic technological terminology, Windows, and word processing. Follow up classes include specific software packages (e.g., PhotoShop and Adobe Acrobat), Internet searching, and using scanners and digital cameras. Participants receive a certificate for each completed course and build on that knowledge in their next course. The enrollment fee of $10 can be waived for those demonstrating extenuating financial circumstances.
Knowledgeable Roanoke teachers, who serve as program instructors, receive a $1,500 stipend. Often a support staff member serves as a paid instructional aide and is responsible for copying materials and aiding participants during practice activities. The program is sustained by an annual budget of $49,000 and has been internally funded from the beginning. Roanoke City Public Schools covers the main cost of instructor's salaries.
During the 1998-99 school year, seventeen schools offered courses as part of the "Computing Seniors/Computing Parents" program. David Baker, Director of Technology for Roanoke City Public Schools, oversees the program, maintains the budget, and assists principals as they schedule and staff courses. Inquiries from other states and districts prompted him to develop a package of materials for local schools implementing such a program.
Challenges to the program emerged during its expansion. Some locations faced a lack of space and equipment. Finding instructors who were willing to add new duties to existing teaching responsibilities was not easy. Expansion also necessitated the development of guidelines and procedures. Coordination across sites took time. The program is currently in a steady stride, though. Procedures were developed and documented, and an established budget provides stability. Lessons stemming from this program are plentiful. First, it is possible to advance community learning while building local support for technology in schools. Second, the outcome can be a win-win situation, as both community members and students benefit from increased access to technology. Third, fiscal support is more easily obtained when the constituency is informed and involved. Fourth, school employees who are challenged to be innovative will rise to the occasion. "Computing Seniors/Computing Parents" began when a school leader saw a need and seized an opportunity.
The program has accomplished its goal of creating support for public schools among community members and has been recognized for its innovation and success--receiving a 21st Century Schools Technology Award for planning in 1996 and 1999, the Virginia Department of Education and Virginia Board of Education's Exemplary Technology Award in 1995, and honorable mention in the Magna Award competition in March 1998. John Lensch says, "More seniors are volunteering to tutor and read to children and to help school staff through a variety of support roles."