Linking School with the Homes of an Urban Neighborhood
by Joe Savrock (February 2008)
PHILADELPHIA - The households of one inner-city Philadelphia neighborhood are no longer lacking access to technology.
Enhancing communication between Isaac A. Sheppard Elementary School and the parents of the school’s students is one of the main goals of an initiative that is putting a new Apple desktop computer into each child’s home. “Student Achievement Through Parent Empowerment,” a collaborative project between Sheppard School, Philadelphia School District, and Penn State’s College of Education, is designed to engage both parents and children in learning. The $250,000 project is funded by the Office of State Sen. Christine M. Tartaglione (D., Phila.).
The computer initiative is part of Penn State’s multifaceted Urban Teaching Collaborative, established three years ago for the improvement of education at Sheppard School.
In the first year of the technology project, some 120 computers, complete with Internet capabilities, are being installed in the homes of third- and fourth-grade students. The plan is to expand to other grade levels in subsequent years.
For the Sheppard students, their school serves as an oasis within Philadelphia’s tough Kensington neighborhood. Crime and unemployment run rampant in Kensington. Many residents are immigrants from Puerto Rico, and some are illiterate—not only in English but also in their native Spanish. Nonetheless, there is a sense of pride that permeates the neighborhood and provides fertile ground for building success in an impoverished community.
The computer project brings a wealth of learning resources for the children and their parents, many of whom would benefit from access to learning materials related to literacy and workforce preparation.
“For Sheppard students who cannot go outside their homes after dark, computer access can mean the difference between using after-school hours to access the world and wasting their time glued to the television,” said Dan Thompson, assistant professor of social studies education at Penn State and director of the overall Urban Teaching Collaborative. “In an area without so much as a library, Internet access can mean access to information, software to encourage children to respond to what they are learning, as well as the means to connect to their teachers and student teachers about schoolwork.”
Robin Clausen, senior research assistant, points out that in years past there has been minimal interaction between the school and the children’s homes. He believes that the technology project can serve as the foundation for enhanced communication and parent involvement.
“Pride in a neighborhood school such as Sheppard further enhances the overall sense of community throughout the neighborhood,” said Clausen. “We have involved some parents as leaders of the training portion of the project and further hope to continue this involvement throughout the course of the project.”
The initiative includes training for the parents in computer basics and networking while stressing the importance of technology in education. Further keeping in mind the demand to responsibly use public resources, Penn State is leading the evaluation of the project. A small team of evaluators has been formed. They will conduct interviews with the parents in two stages—the first at the onset of training, and the second in June. “This will enable us to determine the efficacy to meet the intended goals,” said Clausen.
The project also opens new possibilities for Penn State’s elementary education majors who are based at University Park. “In the future, I would like to see Sheppard students connecting with our teaching candidates while our candidates are involved in education courses on the University Park campus,” noted Thompson. “Tutoring students using the videoconferencing technology available through this initiative has the potential to revolutionize how we prepare future teachers.”