When Vicenta Velez was growing up in Jalisco, Mexico, her elementary school emphasized reading, writing and arithmetic--not FTP, Usenet and Unix.
These days, Velez and her fourth-grade daughter, Mariela, are both learning computer literacy under a program that aims to bridge the "digital divide" in the working-class neighborhood of Pacoima.
The $900,000 Valley Family Technology Project, launched Monday at Pacoima Elementary School, will be paid for by the city of Los Angeles and corporate sponsors. It was spearheaded by Pacoima home-grown City Councilman Alex Padilla.
Velez and about 300 Pacoima Elementary School parents will receive free Web-connected computers after they complete the 20-hour course offered in English and Spanish.
Velez, who already has mastered e-mail, has her reservations about this brave new world, but she said she was generally excited to dive in. "You've got to take care to guard kids against a lot of the bad stuff on the Internet," she said. "But this is really nice that they're giving us the opportunity."
Pacoima Elementary also received teacher training and a new computer lab, courtesy of the technology program. But it is the attempt to bring parents, many of them first-generation Americans, into the digital fold that may be its most ambitious component.
Each fourth-grade class will soon have its own Web site, and organizers hope parents and children will access them together, giving busy moms and dads a new way to get involved in their kids' schoolwork.
"The majority of these moms never touched a computer," said organizer Mario Matute of the Valley Economic Development Center, a nonprofit training group. "A few were even afraid to touch them at all, at first."
A recent study by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration found that in October 2000, 41.5% of households nationwide had Internet access, but only about 23% of black and Latino households were wired.
Padilla, an MIT graduate, drove the point home when he told students of his first attempt to write a college term paper.
"I was sitting in front of a computer frozen, because I didn't know what to do," he said. "Today, we're not just giving out computers, we're giving out hope and opportunity."
Moments later, Edgardo Garcia, 9, frowned as he faced one of the information superhighway's most common speed bumps: the pop-up ad.
"My mom's taking the classes; she says it's easy," Garcia said, as he found the 'X' that closed the box. "She's going to let me do my homework on our computer--but no games."