Grants turn adults, seniors into computer ACEs
The Press of Atlantic City
ACE grants awarded to nine southern New Jersey school districts give residents free access to computers - at least until the money runs out.
Education Writer, (609) 272-7241

Cassandra Davis knew nothing about computers when she arrived at the Community Charter School in Atlantic City in February. Her sister, Cynthia, knew very little. Today, Cassandra is hoping to get a new job using her computer skills and Cynthia is taking practice GMAT tests online while she attends classes at The Richard Stockton College of New Jersey. Both acquired their skills at the free center, funded through a $200,000 ACE grant from the state Department of Education.

Nine school districts in southern New Jersey have received grants to expand technology use into communities through extended hours or partnerships with libraries, community centers and housing authorities.

ACE stands for access, collaboration and equity, and the grants have been targeted to urban and economically disadvantaged towns where residents are less likely to have computers at home.
Center directors say the program has been very successful. Many have waiting lists for their classes.

"The overwhelming interest is for basic computer skills," said Robert Trivellini, Millville ACE coordinator. "Our goal is to reach people who otherwise would not get access to computers, and we are meeting that need."

But as the first round of grant funds gets set to expire in September, there are concerns that programs could end if staff cannot be funded. Directors are searching for new grants or sponsors to keep the centers running, and said charging for classes could become an option.

"Our grant allowed us to set up the center and hire two instructors and two facilitators," said Faisal Youhari, technology director at the Oceanside Charter school and its ACE center. "We have the equipment, but we need continued funding to pay the staff." He said 80 people have signed up for evening classes, and more come just to use the lab, which is open from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. Monday through Thursday. On a recent Thursday, a dozen people were in Brain Steinberg's class, plus a handful worked on their own.

In Millville, interest in classes has increased as word has spread. The 28 computers are spread among the Memorial School, public library and Holly Berry Court Recreation Center. There are 30 adults on the waiting list for classes, and children have been lining up for the summer computer camps, ACE coordinator Trivellini said. "Right now I have more kids than computers," he said.

North Wildwood added computers at both the Margaret Mace School and the city recreation center. School Principal Michael Buccialia said each site attracts different types of people. "We had parents getting involved at the school with their children," he said, "and senior citizens who use the rec center found it convenient to use (computers) there." The rec center has no set classes, but has open hours with staff on hand to assist. "Most of it has been pretty individualized," Buccialia said. "We wanted to see what the interests were." The center also has seen a recent influx of foreign students working in the Wildwoods for the summer who heard about the center and use the computers to e-mail friends and family at home.

The Buena Regional School District, which got a grant in the second round of funding, recently opened its center in the high school library, which is also a township community library in cooperation with the Atlantic County Library. Project coordinator Michael McCausland said he hopes to offer a computer maintenance course, where students will learn how to build a computer and keep it when they're done. The center is adding staff and extending hours. "Anytime the library is open, the computers will also be available," he said. "We have nights and Saturday mornings, and are developing a schedule for classes."

Vineland took a unique approach and bought 50 wireless ibook laptop computers for the Vineland Public Library. The initial plan was to use half in the library and make half available for loan to students, but the loan program has been so popular that now 40 are available to take out for a week, said Holly Rogerson, the library's head of reference. The library is offering weeklong computer camps for students this summer and staffing its lab for expanded public use. Rogerson said the loan program has worked well, with less wear-and-tear on the computers than she had feared. "We bought cases for them, and each person gets a checklist we go through when they borrow it," she said. "There have been some minor problems, but surprisingly few of them."

Other districts that received grants are Atlantic City, Lower Township, Wildwood and the Cumberland County Technical Education Center.