Multiplying Success : School's Loan Program Gives Students Home Computer Access

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Times staff writer David A. Avila contributed to this story

Two weeks ago, the Nava family took home a second-hand computer from Kaiser Elementary School as though it were a library book.

The aging computer monitor and keyboard were donated to the school by another Costa Mesa family. When the school bought software and canvas carrying bags, a novel program was born.

The first of its kind in the Newport-Mesa Unified School District and possibly in the county, the fledgling effort is designed for families who otherwise cannot afford a home computer.

After the computer found a place on a wooden desk near the front door, Israel Nava, 11, quickly became the family champion on the multiplication tables.

He and his father, Joaquin, play a mathematical game so often these days that his older sister, 12-year-old Carolina, feels squeezed out.

"They are good because they play it all the time," she said.

In the game, players accumulate points and move about the screen by correctly choosing, for example, multiples of 8 from a grid full of random numbers.

This kind of competition for computer time is what Kaiser Principal Christine Jurenka had in mind when she chose the Navas as the first family to get the computer.

"If you don't have a computer you can't compete in school," said Jurenka, who modeled the program on similar efforts in Atlanta and Harlem school districts.

"Right now, I can think of 30 families where a computer is needed at home," she said. "We want to kick this off and get other people to look in the garage or somewhere for that old Apple."

Already, 15 families have filled the waiting list into the middle of next year.

"It is a novel idea," said Bill Habermehl, assistant superintendent for instructional services at the county Department of Education. "I think this is exactly what we need to do. This brings the schools and parents together to teach our children."

At Kaiser, students begin learning computers in first and second grades. By third grade, most students are proficient.

"I can see the difference in how our kids read and write," Jurenka said, contrasting those who use computers with those who don't. "When I (recently) took home papers from all the fifth-graders, you could see that some kids turning in stuff done on a word processor" had an advantage.

And a computer at home might encourage children to share their knowledge with the rest of the family, she said.

"We give them software for preschoolers, and ESL (English as a second language) software for the parents," Jurenka said. "These are important skills to have, and we want everyone in the house to use it."

She hopes to expand the program by acquiring a printer and a voice synthesizer that can be used for reading and language software.

Habermehl said county officials are rooting for Kaiser's experiment to succeed, adding that districts that duplicate the program will want to know how well the computer holds up while being circulated from house to house.

"I wish we could keep it the whole summer," said Israel, who will enter sixth grade in fall. "The school lets us have it because we are good students and are good at handling the computer." The lending period is for one month.

He and his two sisters and parents now spend more time at the computer than they do watching television. And when they do watch television, they prefer educational programs that teach reading and mathematics.

The Navas arrived in this country from Mexico City five years ago. They came to Costa Mesa for a variety of reasons, but mostly for their children's future.

"Here the classrooms are smaller. They don't have 50 students in each classroom, like in Mexico City," said Eva Nava, mother of Israel, Carolina and Gabriela, 7. "They have things to help the children here, like this computer. The government in Mexico doesn't provide things like this." Joaquin works as an automotive mechanic and Eva is a maid in a retirement home.

The Navas are still adjusting to the United States. They fear gangs and carjackings and other social ills.

"We don't let the children play outside much," said Eva. "That is why we are glad the children have this computer. They like it."

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