CITY TIMES COVER STORY : Losing the Cyberspace Race : On the Fast-Paced High-Technology Track, Inner City Schools and Libraries Are Taking Small Steps to Catch Up

The world saw the power of information technology when the Berlin Wall tumbled live on CNN, and Tiananmen Square protesters used fax machines to reach their supporters worldwide.

But many of Los Angeles' poorest residents have missed even the past century's communications revolution. One out of five renters in Watts, for instance, does not even have a telephone.

Such persistent deprivation amid rapid advances raises a new challenge for policy-makers, educators and high-tech industries. As workplaces, schools and the government depend more on computer networks and other high-tech systems, many wonder: Will the growing power of information technology underscore the powerlessness of the poor?

Those who have a computer that can tap into networks such as the Internet already have an edge over those without them.

Contractors use the networks to bid for city jobs. Students look for books in libraries, including the Library of Congress, from home computers. Network users send messages to friends on other continents for the price of a local phone call.

Democracy, too, is increasingly tied to technology as computer-savvy activists review congressional bills on line. And in Santa Monica, Glendale and Diamond Bar, residents can send messages directly to city officials from their computers.

"This is going to be the central nervous system of the 21st Century. Communities that are bypassed will end up as shriveled as those that were bypassed by the interstates in the 1950s," said Jeffrey A. Chester, head of the Center for Media Education, a Washington organization that works with civil rights groups on technology issues.

In inner-city Los Angeles, schools, libraries and community groups are taking small steps to avoid being left behind. For instance, students at Garfield High School in East Los Angeles are among the lucky few who have free access to the Internet.

On a recent morning at Garfield, which is one of three city schools that give students Internet log-ons, students crowded around three computers to scan the offerings of the worldwide computer network. One group studied a color map of the topography of the Earth's oceans, another linked up with the computer at the White House and others checked the concert schedule of the rock group Pearl Jam.

"If we didn't have this, we'd probably only know about Internet from commercials. We'd see it on TV but wouldn't really know what it's all about," said Santiago Cardona, a 17-year-old senior, who has used the system to research an English paper.

Without more such efforts, however, the inequality of the early days of the industrial revolution may well be repeated as the world moves solidly into the information age.

Wealth and education play large roles in determining who owns a computer. A 1994 study by the Times Mirror Center for People and the Press found that a college graduate with an annual income over $50,000 is 10 times more likely to have a computer with a modem than a person without a college education who makes less than $30,000 a year.

Thus, unless the gap in computer ownership closes, poor children are likely to fall behind their wealthier peers in developing computer skills.

Cyberspace, as the realm of computer networks is often called, is racially divided as well, according to the poll. Twelve percent of whites have a computer with a modem (a device that links computers via phone lines), compared with 5% of blacks and 8% of Latinos. Asian Americans were not included in the study.

Tight budgets in Los Angeles have limited the computerization of public libraries and schools to a few demonstration projects.

The Los Angeles Public Library, however, has installed public computer terminals for free Internet access in many of its branches. By the end of March, 41 of the system's 66 branches, including several in central and south Los Angeles, will have computers that can tap into on-line networks.

The library's computer system can give the poor better access to resources out of their areas. Library users who live far from Downtown Los Angeles will be able to find books in the Central Library through a computer at their neighborhood branch.

The Exposition Park library branch signed up 80 library users for Internet classes, which are being held this week. Only one terminal is available for Internet use, however, and users are limited to one-hour sessions.

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Officials hope that computer networks can narrow the quality gap between schools in rich and poor areas as well. Through networks, teachers in different schools can exchange lesson plans, research and teaching tips. Students could use computers to get help from teachers at other schools or plug into another school's library.

"Internet access could be the great equalizer. It might give a student in South-Central (Los Angeles) the same access to resources that a student in Beverly Hills has," said Andy Rogers of the Los Angeles Unified School District's information technology division.

The Los Angeles school district is now running a pilot program that provides Internet access to teachers.

Teachers are beginning to use the Internet to do research for their lessons, and can get up-to-date school district news.

Garfield, which has a computer-science magnet program, has nearly 200 computer terminals, and is one of three Los Angeles high schools that gives students Internet log-ons. (The two others are the Bravo Medical Magnet at Los Angeles County-USC Medical Center and the Electronic Information Magnet at Temple Street and Beaudry Avenue.)

Themy Sparangis, Garfield's technology coordinator, said that up-to-date computers in schools are necessary to keep students from falling behind. "If we're going to have network-based learning, we're going to have to provide basic computer service at the schools. You can't expect kids to have computers at home when some of our students don't even have telephones," he said.

Huge infrastructure investments, however, will be needed to enable schools to provide Internet access to most students in Los Angeles and the rest of California. California ranks 44th among the states in the ratio of computers to students in its public schools. Less than 5% of public-school classrooms in California are wired for computers.

Phone companies such as Pacific Bell have offered to install lines in schools and libraries for free, but the companies want to charge for use of the lines after a free introductory period.

Rogers, of LAUSD, thinks the fees could be prohibitive. "They plan to charge $77 a month per line. If a school has five lines, that's a lot of money for one school," he said.

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Many businesses give their old computers to schools and educational groups when they buy new equipment. As helpful as that may sound, the donated machines are no substitute for investment in technology, said Keith D. Vogt, director of the California Technology Project, a state-funded program to promote computer use in schools.

Vogt and other educators say the old machines are useful for beginning students but shouldn't be seen as a solution for poor schools. That's because students trained on computers that are no longer in use by businesses will be disadvantaged, as will the businesses that hire them, Vogt said. "By using second-class equipment you produce second-class workers."

California trails several states in funding for computers in schools. Texas, for instance, spends $35 per student per year on technology, compared with $2 a child in California.

While states have moved aggressively in funding statewide technology programs, California's modest technology spending means that schools must apply for grants to fund specific projects. *

The federal government has also set aside grant money for projects to improve access to the latest technology. The Korean Youth and Community Center in Koreatown got one of the first such grants from the Department of Commerce.

The center will use its $60,000 grant to teach neighborhood youths how to operate computers, and will use its new computer system to talk via electronic mail to other Asian groups in Los Angeles and the rest of the country.

Beyond grants, new federal and state regulations might be needed to ensure fair access. For decades, state and federal rules have directed phone companies to provide service to all households. And a complex system of subsidies has evolved. Businesses, for instance, pay higher phone rates to keep residential phone rates down.

Vice President Al Gore has proposed easing regulations on communications companies in exchange for wiring schools, hospitals and low-income households.

A coalition of groups, including the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People, has asked the Federal Communications Commission to revise its policies to ensure greater public participation in the establishment of new communications networks and prevent poor areas from being bypassed.

The groups claim that phone companies, in their first efforts to wire homes for interactive television and other services, did not include low-income and minority communities, a charge the companies deny.

Conservatives and liberals alike have called for federal action to help the poor get the latest technology. House Speaker Newt Gingrich has proposed a tax credit to help those with low incomes buy computers.

Meanwhile, smaller local efforts continue. The University of Southern California and Los Angeles City Councilman Mark Ridley-Thomas hope to set up a computer network by May that will give residents of his South-Central district Internet access. Block clubs will be able to share information with each other over the network, and residents will be able to get data such as up-to-date crime statistics from their homes or public terminals.

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For the project to work, Ridley-Thomas said, terminals will have to be easily accessible. Proposed sites include elderly care homes and offices of community service groups. And one heavily visited public space is sure to be wired: Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Plaza.

But Ridley-Thomas said that ensuring fair access to technology is such a large task--akin to providing universal telephone service--that federal action will be needed to boost state and local efforts. "We'll have to have public support to provide a fundamental floor for people to participate," he said. "The government has a responsibility to ensure what will be a basic lifeline service."

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