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February 1, 1997
Vol. 54
No. 5

A High-Tech Magnet for Seniors

Many citizens have become disconnected from the public schools in their community. Highland Park Learning Center brought them back with an innovative program teaching computer skills to senior citizens.

Across the United States, a rift is widening between public school systems and the citizens they serve. Increasingly, disenfranchised parents are considering private schools, charter schools, home schooling, voucher options, and other alternatives for their children. At the same time, educators are finding that tax support for public education is shrinking. For a variety of reasons, a large portion of the general public no longer feels connected to the local school.
Thus, principals and other school leaders are looking for ways to restore the public's confidence in and support for public education and to reestablish a positive sense of community. One way to do this is to make schools the centerpieces of neighborhood activities and services, particularly for those who traditionally have been underserved by the programs and services the public schools have to offer.
Senior citizens are such an underserved group. Without school-age children of their own, some members of this large, growing, and politically influential constituency see little reason to support local and state tax increases to provide public education's programs and services. But senior citizens can be a valuable ally if we develop creative ways to reconnect them with the public schools.

Computing Seniors

Highland Park Learning Center is a high-tech magnet school located in the southwest section of Roanoke City, Virginia. The school was modernized seven years ago as part of a neighborhood revitalization effort in the older sections of the city. At that time approximately 100 computers and peripheral pieces of equipment were installed and networked throughout the building.
Although our students used the computers during the day, in the evenings our equipment—like computers in schools throughout the nation—lay dormant. As the principal of Highland Park, I had been looking for ways to increase community involvement in our school. Why not, I thought, open up the school after the children's day has ended and make our facility, with its extensive network of computers, printers, modems, and other equipment, available for use by our senior neighbors and the grandparents of our students? Why not bring these people back to school and teach them to use common computer applications? Why not give them a renewed sense of learning and accomplishment and a feeling of getting something back for all the years of tax support they have provided to public schools?
Thus was born the Computing Seniors program.
The Roanoke City Public Schools approved the proposal, and in November 1995 we received a mini-grant of $500 to establish a pilot program at Highland Park Learning Center. Most of the grant paid for a part-time computer instructor to develop the curriculum, teach the classes, and coordinate the use of the facility and equipment with the school's regular instructional staff. Our goal for the pilot project was to attract 10-20 senior citizens.
To recruit our first class, we developed a flier to advertise the program, and we also announced it in the school's monthly calendar and newsletter. Our school's volunteer coordinators contacted local churches and civic organizations, the area Office on Aging, and other community clubs and groups that seniors frequented to explain the program's purpose and seek participation. And it paid off! When we kicked off the program in January 1996, 18 persons over the age of 55 joined us for the first weekly two-hour session.

The Perils of Mice

Working with the older adults (the oldest was 81) was enjoyable, enlightening, and sometimes challenging. All of the seniors were very interested in learning how to operate what they perceived to be very sophisticated electronic equipment. Several of them were nervous and afraid that if they pushed a wrong button they would damage or destroy the equipment! But they were determined to master the technology. As one senior remarked, "If my 5-year-old granddaughter can learn to use a computer, I am going to do so as well."
As with any class of students, we found that our seniors presented a range of abilities. A few had a little experience with computers, but most did not. Many had never touched a keyboard before or didn't know how to type. Therefore, we designed the program to teach basic concepts and operations, focusing primarily on simple word processing.
In the early classes, several students found that their unsteady hands made it difficult to control the mouse. They found it hard to move the mouse accurately enough to direct the pointer arrow on the screen toward an icon or menu item while also clicking the mouse button to activate a particular function. But after several weeks of practice, most had mastered the skill. (We eventually added a second helper to the weekly classes to assist those who were having difficulty or who went at a slower pace.)
In many respects working with the seniors was similar to our experiences in working with younger learners: they displayed the joy and eagerness for learning that we see in young children, only without all the hyperactivity. By the end of the semester, most participants had a good knowledge of the basics of computer operations and word processing, and had been introduced to the Internet. In the current class, we've condensed part of the curriculum to allow more time for the seniors to learn to use multimedia and surf the Internet, accessing "Senior Net" and other Web sites of interest to them.
Once the Computing Seniors program was established, a reporter from the local newspaper visited and did a feature story about it. The article provided positive publicity for the school and generated interest from senior citizens throughout the Roanoke Valley. A few weeks later, the newspaper published an editorial that complimented the school for helping to reestablish a sense of community in the neighborhood and for bridging the generation gap.
As a result of this publicity— and word of mouth, more than 70 retirees and grandparents are enrolled in the next series of Computing Seniors classes at Highland Park and three other schools. The program has also had an unexpected byproduct: more seniors are volunteering to tutor and read to children and to help school staff through a variety of support roles.
Ensuring that the community values and supports its schools is critical to our children's academic success. Time and again, effective schools research has found that schools will have fewer discipline and attendance problems and higher average achievement levels if they enjoy strong community involvement and support. Programs such as Computing Seniors can help promote the community involvement so critical in these days of public discontent and disengagement from public education.

John E. Lensch has been a contributor to Educational Leadership.

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