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article imageUS School District Electrifies Education With Free Laptops Special

By Kim Hartman     Jun 21, 2009 in World
Sunnyside Unified School District in Tucson, Arizona gives free laptops to high-achieving students from low-income high schools. The first-year program is considered one of the most innovative efforts to close the digital divide ever initiated.
TUCSON -- Sunnyside sophomore Jennifer Galindo knows all about barriers.
Two years ago, her family moved from Mexico to Tucson, where she didn’t know anyone and barely spoke English.
“It was really hard at first,” Galindo said. “I had to go to my teachers and advisers a lot to adjust to living here. Learning English was by far the most difficult part.”
In addition to the language barrier, she didn’t have much money growing up. Galindo’s family never had a computer -- a luxury many middle class Americans take for granted -- and her dad currently works construction to support his family.
But at the end of this past school year, Galindo -- who’s grade point average jumped from 3.0 to 4.0 from her freshman to sophomore year -- became the first member of her family to ever own a computer, thanks to Sunnyside Unified School District’s Digital Scholars program.
Galindo is just one of the 339 students who reaped the benefits of Digital Scholars. The first-year program makes efforts to close the digital divide by distributing free laptops to SUSD high school students, who often come from low-income backgrounds (Nearly 84 percent of SUSD students qualified for free or reduced-price meals in the 2006-07 school year). The digital divide is the disparity of accessed information and technology between the middle/upper class and the lower class.
The district’s main high schools -- Sunnyside and Desert View -- were identified as “dropout factories” in a Johns Hopkins University research study. In 2007, SUSD’s graduation rate was just 64 percent. Of those graduates, less than 10 percent of them went on to college.
“Dropout rates were higher and computer usage was lower in our area than in others,” Learning Community Partnership Coordinator Brandon Protas said. “We needed a comprehensive reform that brought results.”
Enter the Digital Scholars and Digital Advantage programs.
To get the laptop, Digital Scholar candidates (sophomores, juniors and seniors) had to maintain at least a 3.5 grade point average, have a 95 percent or higher attendance rate, participate in an extracurricular activity and have no out-of-school suspensions. The only difference between the two programs is that the Digital Advantage aspirates (freshmen) needed a 2.5 GPA instead of a 3.5 to meet the requirement. All of the other criteria were the same.
At the school year‘s finish line, 844 SUSD students (339 upperclassmen and 505 freshmen) had earned laptops.
“It’s really made a difference (in student performance),” Desert View sophomore Arely Robles said. “People started working harder and doing better and going to class more. I mean, even me, I had C’s before and now I get A’s.”
Since the merit-based reward programs were initiated last year, SUSD has seen a high school dropout reduction of 58 percent. In addition, 20 percent of students moved out of the “two or more F’s” category, and there was a 63 percent reduction in class absences.
These figures speak for themselves.
“What’s happening (in SUSD) is historic,” Superintendent Dr. Manuel Isquierdo said. “This is a disruptive innovation. No other place in this nation is yielding results like they are here. We are accomplishing on a global level and proving the naysayers wrong.”
However drastic the numbers are, the heartbeat of the program is encouraging students to overcome resistance and launch themselves to achieve. Take recent graduate Shaira Garman, for example, who closed out her senior year at Desert View with straight A’s and was admitted into the University of Arizona.
“I think many people don’t think I’m going move onto better things, since I‘m a girl,” she said. “And I want to do it and prove that I’m a better person.”
Garman came to the United States from Cumpas, Sonora in Mexico when she was a year old. Neither of her parents nor her two older sisters knew English when they moved to America.
Recent Sunnyside graduate Ruis Gigito is also headed to the UA in the fall. He said getting the laptop was his motivation when he was struggling in math his senior year. Gigito also said that he has been patronized for being Hispanic, the predominant race of SUSD students (88 percent).
“I could really relate to it when one of the speakers said that living in southern Arizona is hard for Latinos and that they are looked down upon,” the Honor Society member said. “But when people are saying stuff like that to me, I just tell myself, ‘One day at a time’ and try to do my best to prove them wrong.”
Gigito attributes his success to his parents, as many SUSD students do. Freshman and Digital Advantage recipient Autumn Peña said that she wouldn’t know where she’d be without her dad, who attends every single one of her volleyball games, home or away.
“My parents always tell me to stay active,” Peña said. “They really encourage me and push me to achieve. My teachers at Desert View have also been a big influence. They treat (their students) really well.”
Her father and emotional rock Chris said he liked that his daughter received a tangible prize for her hard work. “Paper is great but a physical award sticks,” he said.
Help from the Higher-Ups
People in high places are putting their money where their mouth is.
Tucson City Councilman Steve Leal said he needed three things before coming to speak at the Digital Advantage laptop distribution: Espresso, a tank full of gas and check for $25,000.
“Accessed information in America has to be seen as a right, or else American principles will start to mean less and less,” he said. “Digital Advantage is a bridge like we never had.”
Other politicians who supported the projects financially were Pima County Supervisor Ramón Valadez and Mayor Bob Walkup.
Local businesses boosted the initiative. Six figure donors include Cox Communications, the Pascua Yaqui Tribe, the SUSD Foundation and the Tohono O’odham Nation. The UA and Pima Community College cashed in as in-kind sponsors.
Hewlett-Packard provided the laptops, which retail at $1,000 each.
“You are our motivation,” HP’s Susan McIver said. “We talk about you to districts throughout Arizona and how you are learning. It’s truly moving and makes me teary.”
Assisting their own cause, SUSD employees gave $40,000.
“It was amazing to see students applauding and cheering for their peers who were receiving their laptops because of earning them through meeting goals in academics and attendance,” Protas said. “There was such a wonderful energy in the room that was hard to describe if you weren’t there. We are excited for this program to continue to positively impact our students.”
From SUSD’s governing board that spearheaded the projects, to the sponsors who made them a financial reality, to the encouraging teachers and supportive parents, to the hard working students themselves -- the Digital programs have been a community effort.
As the UA President Robert Shelton, who gave a video message at the laptop ceremony, said…
“It takes a village to make this happen.”
More about Sunnyside, Tucson, Digital divide, Manuel isquierdo, Susd
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