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Computers and Day Care: A Winning Combination

Providing laptops for people in the inner city has changed the lives of many families with small children

IN one of his recent ruminations, Newt Gingrich proposed a tax credit for poor Americans to buy laptop computers. He then retracted the proposal as a ``nutty idea.'' I don't think the idea of providing people in poor communities with computers is nutty at all. I know. We already tried it. It worked, and it's still working.

Maybe Speaker Gingrich wouldn't have retreated so fast if he'd seen a curly-topped two-year-old in Chelsea, Mass., rush to ``la computadora'' every morning, clamber onto the kitchen chair, and log on to her word games. She was ready for the post-industrial world before she started preschool!

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In 1990, the Boston University/Chelsea Partnership put donated computers in the homes of family-day-care providers in the poorest city in the state - a gateway for Latino, Southeast Asian, and other immigrants. The goal was to give the providers access, through technology, to information about early childhood education. The result was a project that won an award from FARNET for ``most innovative use of the Internet in Massachusetts.'' It changed the lives of many poor families with small children.

More than `paperweights'

Through the Partnership agreement, Chelsea had contracted with nearby Boston University to manage its public school system for 10 years. The planning team was searching for cost-effective methods to help children learn before they entered first grade. I had run a child-care agency in Dorchester that included a family-day-care system, and I had always been impressed by the dedication and the care of the providers. But most wanted to do more than simply nurture the children; they wanted to help prepare them for school. Yet how could providers take education courses and attend workshops far from home when they were caring for children from 7 a.m. to well after 5 p.m.?

Our answer was to bring college-level classes to Chelsea and bolster them with a computer network. Dr. Carole Greenes, associate dean of the School of Education, and I got a grant from IBM. We worked with people involved in child care in Chelsea to design the overall program. Providers who joined were given computers, modems, and printers in their homes. They took college-level courses on Saturday mornings in a central Chelsea location. Added to the network were private child-care centers, Head Start, Chelsea Memorial Hospital's pediatrics department, the public school preschool program, and the School of Education.

None of the providers, most of them Latina immigrants, had ever used a computer. Experts warned me that the computers would be ``paperweights'' in providers' homes. They couldn't have been more wrong.

The first two months were rocky, getting everyone on-line and trained. Then it took off. The three-hour training sessions drew not just providers but child-care center teachers, administrators, health workers, parents, and volunteers. Invariably the lecturers told us that these were the best students they'd ever had. Homework, stories, medical bulletins, games, parents' newsletters, permission forms, and advice in English and Spanish flowed onto the bulletin board. Soon the children discovered educational games, and there was no turning back.

Interest spreads

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In time, providers lectured with us at regional conferences. They wrote newsletters and publicity materials, networked with teachers, took extra classes at nearby community colleges. One provider returned to college and received her associate's degree. Some husbands got involved too, in a field they had previously considered only women's work.

Though IBM phased out its funding, the Chelsea schools continued the network. It's still operating. We've had inquiries from Texas, Colorado, and Florida, asking how to start similar ventures. I hope the project does get copied. One day, we could link child-care systems across the country through the Internet, creating an information (and conversation!) resource for women caring for and teaching small children in their homes.

So, Mr. Speaker, if you think your dream's too nutty, take comfort. In a city with all the modern urban woes, there is a real hope. In one small corner of Massachusetts, the future you've been speculating about is already here. The Opinion/Essay Page welcomes manuscripts. Authors of articles we accept will be notified by telephone. Authors of articles not accepted will be notified by postcard. Send manuscripts to Opinions/Essays, One Norway Street, Boston, MA 02115, by fax to 617 -450-2317, or by Internet E-mail to OPED@RACHEL.CSPS.COM.

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