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Ahead of the Learning Curve

The Riordan Foundation uses computers as tools to give youngsters in Los Angeles public schools a jump-start on reading, writing and other skills.


Simple as ABC:

Youngsters go to school to learn the three Rs. Sometimes they do and sometimes . . .

"When you realize in the L.A. public schools a poor child, 6 years old, has a statistical 12% chance to read and write at the eighth-grade level by the time they're 18--this is pathetic."

This, from Mayor Richard Riordan.

And this is why the Riordan Foundation, established in 1981, offers programs and grants for early childhood education, including, "Writing to Read," which targets kindergarten and first grade.

"One of the great advantages is that kids who go through this love to write, and at the end of first grade, a lot of kids will have over a hundred stories in the memory of their computer," the mayor said enthusiastically. "But it's got to be an integrative curriculum, used regularly and [on a regular schedule]."

The nonprofit organization also provides classroom computers for kids in kindergarten through fifth grade, sponsors "Kidtype," which teaches keyboard skills to fourth-graders, and runs a mentor-volunteer program.

First things first, though. The mayor kiddingly asked that we not refer to him as a philanthropist.

Question: Because?

Answer: Because if you look up the word "philanthropist" in the Oxford Unabridged Dictionary, they have two definitions: One is somebody who allows his self-aggrandizement to overcome his greed, and the other is someone who returns to the public a small percentage of what he stole from the public. I use that in speeches sometimes if someone introduces me as a philanthropist.

Q: So on that note, explain a little bit about the "Writing to Read" program.

A: It's a computer program with dedicated software that starts teaching kids in kindergarten to write stories on a computer and have the ability to read it back. The main thing we wanted to give them is the confidence to write and read it back, and not let having to spell words perfectly get in the way of that. Then as they go through the program, within a year or so they're spelling most or all words correctly.

Q: I've seen pictures of you visiting the classrooms.

A: One of my most embarrassing moments happened at one of the learning centers with this 9-year-old who was doing e-mail and, you know, being the brilliant person I am, I was helping her compose something. At the end of it, she had all this "dot com White House"--she was sending a note to President Clinton. I said, "Well, have they taught you how to get it to the president?" And she turned with the most startled, disdainful look on her face and said, "You press 'Send.' "

But it's just wonderful to go into class and see how eager kids are to learn and schools that do well, where it shows that kids want to learn and where, if you have the will, the tools, you can teach kids. And it makes me very unhappy how disastrous our public school system is as a whole. There are some that succeed, and we ought to copy that. And that's why you have to start out with the youngest age.

Q: How many schools in L.A.?

A: Well, we're in about a hundred of the public schools in L.A. And we'd be in a lot more except that we will go into a school only if we're invited in by the principal and if they have the space. Our foundation trains the teachers on how to use this. We monitor them. We retrain people. It's all a package.

Q: At least they're not left on their own.

A: I probably should have prefaced everything with this: I hate the words "computer literacy" because that means that being literate on computers is an end to itself. It's a means to an end. It's a tool, but it's a tool to teach you reading and writing. It's a tool to teach you math, to teach you graphics. It's a tool to play a game. And as far as teaching kids to use this tool, it takes a day. I mean, this is not rocket science.

Q: What's the mentoring program like?

A: This is where we get the graduate students at the business school at UCLA to mentor with inner-city high school kids. And they teach them economic games. They have a contest where the high school kids come up with videos and stuff--like one of them gave [a project] to Hewlett-Packard on how to improve their products. We've had five kids from the program--the program's about 11 years old--who have graduated from Harvard Business School and a bunch from Stanford, Berkeley, UCLA business schools.

Q: What were you like in school when you were a kid?

A: I was a nerd. I was very shy. I sort of amaze myself because I was very shy, and I think sometimes a lot of people thought I was a little bit aloof, but it was more from shyness. But, you know, notwithstanding that, I was captain of the football team and all that kind of stuff.

Q: Did you like to study? You didn't need prodding?

A: I was a good student, yeah . . . always a good crammer, and I have real intellectual curiosity. I was reading five books at a time depending on my feeling, and I've always been that way.

Q: Any subject that you avoided?

A: Chemistry was one I didn't like. I like more the humanities. I was a philosophy major in college.

Q: Anything else you want to say about giving?

A: I thought you may be asking a question that I would have given this answer to: Moses Maimonides, who was a Jewish scholar in the 12th century, had the eight levels of giving from the most selfish level to the highest, which was giving to give people self-sufficiency so they don't need you. And that's what I'm trying to do--teach kids those skills so they don't need my help or anybody's help.


The Riordan Foundation: (213) 229-5085 or

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