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Corporations Sponsor Free Computer School for the Unemployed

Times Staff Writer

In a classroom four floors above Van Nuys Boulevard, 20-year-old Richard Falasco wrestles with two challenges: an IBM personal computer and unemployment. By mastering one, he hopes to overcome the other.

“Someday I want to start my own computer school, so I’d better learn this,” Falasco said the other day at the terminal’s keyboard. His instructions were supposed to send a green Pac Man-like creature skittering through a maze. But every time Falasco tried, the figure got halfway and vanished in a flash of green light.

Computer technology is the focus of many dreams and frustrations in that room these days. It is one of three classrooms in a tuition-free computer school for unemployed local residents that opened five weeks ago, funded with help from companies that include IBM, Bank of America and First Interstate Bank of California. Occupying about 3,000 square feet of an office building in Van Nuys, it appears to be the first such center in the San Fernando Valley, whose high-technology businesses are being looked to as its graduates’ eventual employers.

Longtime Interest by IBM

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“IBM has always looked at the Valley as a place with an increasing number of employment opportunities, yet with a lot of people who do not have the background to take advantage of those opportunities,” said Bob Woodworth, manager for IBM community relations in the western United States. “The idea in many people’s minds is that there aren’t any poverty areas in the San Fernando Valley, and that’s not true.”

Woodworth said the program is expected to graduate about 112 people a year. Classes are held five days a week, from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. The shortest course runs 12 weeks, for those studying computerized secretarial skills; the longest 16 weeks, for those preparing to become programmers. Most students will be from the Valley. They must prove hardship and pass tests in reading, writing and typing. The school also will put an emphasis on training the handicapped, administrators said.

Students will have to adhere to a dress code that includes ties for men and “presentable clothes” for women, and they will sit in on lectures about how to dress, write and generally handle oneself in the business world.

Extension of Cleland House

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The computer school is an extension of Cleland House, a much-acclaimed community center in East Los Angeles. Cleland House brought together the Van Nuys school’s corporate sponsors, hired its three teachers and has spread word of it through Valley unemployment offices.

Since 1922, Cleland House has worked to offer social and professional opportunities to the disadvantaged. In East Los Angeles, it helps mediate disputes among local youth gangs and runs a program to help socialize juvenile offenders. A year ago it started a computer training center that is the forerunner for the one in Van Nuys.

There are two other such schools in the Los Angeles area. One is the Los Angeles Urban League’s Data Processing Training Center at Florence Avenue and Figueroa Street in Los Angeles. Another, in Santa Ana, is run by a community group called SER-Jobs for Progress. “Ser” is the Spanish verb for “to be.” Both schools are supported largely by corporations.

The Urban League’s computer school “was the first of its kind in the country, with community job training activities centered on computer operations,” said Joseph Angello, vice president and head of Bank of America’s community development department. The Urban League school was started in 1968, Angello said.

Key Contributors

Angello said Bank of America has had a long relationship with the Urban League and Cleland House. It has contributed $10,000 to the Van Nuys center, he said. Meanwhile, Victor Munoz, vice president of urban affairs for First Interstate, said his bank has committed $20,000 to the Van Nuys project and plans eventually to give more. Munoz is chairman of Cleland House’s board of directors.

Lockheed California Co., a subsidiary of Lockheed Corp. in Burbank, also will contribute, but executives there have not decided how much, according to David Crowther, Lockheed’s vice president for corporate communications. And Cleland House is also expecting a $50,000 donation from a philanthropic foundation that the center’s officials declined to name.

In all, Cleland House officials hope to put together about $200,000 in corporate and foundation funding to get the Van Nuys branch off the ground.

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IBM is the leading corporate participant, according to Carlos Venegas, Cleland House’s executive director. For the Van Nuys operation, the company is lending Cleland House computer equipment that would cost more than $750,000 a year to rent, Woodworth said. He said the school, which already has 10 IBM personal computers, will soon have eight computer terminals connected to an IBM 4341 mainframe at the Urban League training center, which will function as a central processing unit. Woodworth said the school will also have six computerized typewriters, on which students will study secretarial skills.

Job Placement Goal

Woodworth said he was hoping that 85% to 90% of the graduates of the Van Nuys branch would be placed in jobs. That, he said, is about the percentage of placements at the three other, similar training centers in the area. He said about 3,000 people had finished courses at the other three centers and about 2,500 had gotten jobs. “I’d expect that companies located in the Valley would take the lion’s share of the graduates,” he said.

To be accepted at the school, a single student cannot make more than $4,980 a year. Nor can he or she belong to a family of two that makes more than $6,720, a family of three that makes more than $8,460 or a family of four earning more than $10,200.

So far the Van Nuys school has enrolled 16 students, said Victor Fontaine, its administrator. “We’re just getting started,” he said, walking across the new carpet to help a student who was having trouble. The seven students at the school one day last week included a down-and-out scriptwriter seeking alternative employment, a Russian immigrant who wanted to forsake diamond-grading for computer programming, a former key-punch operator who has been out of work a year with back problems, and a former stationery order clerk.

They had found out about the school when they went to pick up unemployment checks in the Valley or in Glendale, or had seen a Cleland House flyer.

‘Lost’ on First Day

“I’m lost,” said Patsy Chapman, 31, of Sun Valley, as she looked at a computer screen. “This is my first day here.”

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She has been out of work with back problems. When she visited an unemployment office in the Valley recently, she said, she was told there were not many jobs for key-punch operators.

“This is the way things are going,” Chapman said. “Computers. I want to be a word programmer.”

“I didn’t like computers before I came here,” said Falasco, of North Hollywood, who had gotten his computerized man nearly to the end of the maze.

Falasco wore a sweat shirt. School administrators said they plan to impose the dress code.

“I’ve got a tie,” Falasco said. “I’ve got jackets and ties. I’m going to wear them. I really want to develop a business image. I want to learn computer programming. I want to make it.”


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