GOLETA, Calif. — Until last year, Juan Lara's family didn't have a home computer. Now, the fifth-grader stands beside an Apple iMac in front of fellow Isla Vista Elementary School students and gives a PowerPoint presentation on the life of Sam Houston.
Each new fact about the famous Texan that slides onto the screen is accompanied by applause, which Juan has programmed into his presentation. Principal Lisa Maglione is so impressed that she vows to learn how to add the effect herself.
"I'm going to have to look that up," she says.
Juan is one of many kids across the country who have benefited from at least 200 programs that give free computers to schoolchildren. Officials with the giveaway programs are convinced that computers will help students graduate from high school, keep out of trouble and compete for good jobs.
"Having access to a home computer improves educational outcomes," says Robert Fairlie, an economist at UC Santa Cruz who has studied the "digital divide" between computer haves and have-nots.
"It might be keeping kids off the street," he says.
Fairlie says the students will also have a better chance in a job market where 85% of college graduates use computers at work.
He cites 2003 census data that 20 million children nationwide don't have home computers. Those who are poor, black or Latino, or have parents who are high school dropouts, are 20% to 30% less likely to have computers.
Jim Lynch of the San Francisco-based nonprofit Compumentor, which distributes software donated by Microsoft to programs from Canada to South America, says the giveaway programs collect used computers from businesses and individuals, then refurbish and update them for distribution.
If Juan can teach his principal a new PowerPoint technique, it will be just one more benefit of the Computers for Families program in Santa Barbara County. The program, which includes four school districts, aims to give a home computer to every fourth-grade student who needs one.
It is paying dividends in the Lara household, where Juan's mother is learning English; she uses the computer to practice typing.
Most programs have no restrictions on who can use a computer after a student takes it home, Lynch says. He recalls one San Francisco student who used a free computer to help run his father's lawn-care business.
"If they teach their parents and their sister and brothers and whoever else, all the better," says Lynch, who directs Compumentor's computer recycling and reuse program.
Backers call such programs a win for students and the environment, because computers that aren't properly discarded can release lead and other toxins in landfills that can seep into groundwater.
Volunteers and businesses across the country collected 100,000 used computers to commemorate Earth Day, according to Willie Cade, a coordinator for the Computer Reuse and Recycle Coalition and chief executive officer of Computers for Schools, a Chicago-based program.
Santa Barbara County's mix of rich and poor residents makes it an obvious place for computer philanthropy. At Juan's school, low-income children of new immigrants attend classes with the kids of professors at UC Santa Barbara.
Behind the nonprofit Computers for Families program is a coalition of business and education leaders known as Santa Barbara Partners in Education that hopes to raise $4 million to continue the program indefinitely. Its annual budget is about $200,000.
County education officials provide accounting and administrative help. Youths in a juvenile detention facility do repairs and learn job skills in the process.
Teachers are often struck by the program's unexpected benefits. One Isla Vista teacher recalls a girl who e-mailed questions to a junior high teacher.
"The next generation is going to do stuff in technology we don't even have the capacity to imagine," Maglione says.
Juan, 10, is getting ready. He types his school reports and wraps the text around images he finds online. For a recent assignment, he wrote a poem titled "Self Portrait" in which he describes himself and what he can do.
"My hair is as shiny as a sleeping horse. My eyes are brown as a basketball," he wrote. "My ears hear noisy rain and music. My ears can hear the splash of the ocean."
And his hands?
"My hands," Juan wrote, "can type on the computer."