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Program will bring Web to poor children

Gov. Jeb Bush unveils a plan to set up computer labs throughout Florida for disadvantaged youths.

By DIANE RADO

© St. Petersburg Times, published July 29, 2000


TALLAHASSEE -- As a student, Gov. Jeb Bush had to do research the old-fashioned way -- paging through books and shuffling through library catalogs. Today, he marvels at kids who can access the world of the Internet from their home computers.

The problem, Bush says, is that poor and minority families are less likely to have computers at home. "This is a serious issue in our state, . . . a divide between people who can access technology and people who have a harder time doing so."

Friday, Bush committed to solving that problem, announcing a public-private initiative to set up 25 to 50 computer sites throughout Florida by 2001 that will give disadvantaged children access to the Internet.

Kids will be able to go to community centers, YMCAs, Boys and Girls Clubs and other locations to surf the Web.

Florida will see student achievement rise, Bush said. "We're going to have kids able to pursue huge dreams."

The project will be funded, in part, by $500,000 from Florida A&M University's Institute on Urban Policy and Commerce. The money was provided through legislation sponsored by Sen. James Hargrett, D-Tampa, and Rep. Rudy Bradley, R-St. Petersburg.

A host of private companies -- such as Gateway, America Online, Intermedia Communications, AT&T, Universal Studios and Time Warner -- will provide financial and technical help. Bush couldn't give an exact figure for those contributions.

The state and private companies will work with the national PowerUP organization, an initiative launched in November 1999 to bring technology to disadvantaged children at 250 sites in 43 states by the end of 2000.

Nine cities in Florida, including Tampa, will have some of those sites. Bush said that when he heard that news, he got ambitious.

"I said, "Why can't we have 50 sites?' " Bush said Friday, surrounded by black children from a Boys and Girls Club in Jacksonville that has the first PowerUP computer site in Florida.

In passionate remarks, Bradley told the children crowded into the Governor's Mansion to strive for the best.

"Who knows? We might have a nuclear physicist here, or a person who is going to discover a cure for one of the many depressing diseases we have," Bradley said.

"Information is the key. The more information you have, the better you will live," Bradley told the children. "The computer lab is more important than gymnasiums."

FAMU's Institute on Urban Policy and Commerce will select the computer sites from applications from organizations. Decisions should be made by mid-September.

The sites will have as many as 20 top-of-the-line computers. But "we're not just about putting pretty boxes in rooms," said Martina Hone, vice president for public policy at PowerUP.

The program also provides mentors to help children use the computers, as well as a safe place to be after school, Hone said. Organizations seeking computer sites must agree to be open between 2:30 and 7:30 p.m., Monday through Friday, and agree to hire an adult in a full-time position to oversee the site. The computers will be set up so that children won't have access to inappropriate material.

Studies by the U.S. Commerce Department have documented what Bush and others call a "digital divide" in the country in terms of computer ownership.

A 1998 study, for example, showed that whites were more than twice as likely to own a home computer as blacks or Hispanics. And nearly 80 percent of households earning more than $75,000 had a personal computer in 1998 -- five times the percentage of families in the lowest-income households. Low-income households in rural areas were the least likely to have a personal computer.

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