Sitting in front of bright computer screens in Tuckahoe School’s technology lab on a recent Monday night, Latino students young and old clicked through electronic books, read aloud and asked their teacher for help. The youngest participants in the combined English and technology class seemed to be at home with a mouse in their hands—but some of their parents looked on timidly.
Tuckahoe hopes to put them at ease. Taking the initiative to learn English and better understand how to use a computer, Latino families in Tuckahoe have signed up for the Digital Age Family Literacy Program offered through the Educational Products Information Exchange (EPIE) Institute, a non-profit organization that provides a 12-week course for non-native English speaking families. And as an additional incentive, those who complete the program get to take home the laptop computers they learn on, free of charge.
“I knew nothing, zero, about computers,” said Consuelo López, who is originally from Colombia and takes the course with her daughter, a fifth-grader, who was absent that night. “My daughter is amazing on the computer, and I am embarrassed when she asks me to help [with work on the computer].”
The digital divide isn’t uncommon, according to Southampton resident Luis Duque, also of Colombian descent, who teaches the class three days a week. He said there are many levels of understanding within the class. Many parents do not know how to use a computer, and many children are adept. Some children speak English better than their parents, and some parents are more fluent in English than their children, he said. “Some have no knowledge of the language, but I love seeing how they progress, and I’m grateful to see how they improve,” Mr. Duque said.
Each Monday, Wednesday and Thursday, beginning on February 25, five families have shown up for two hours of computer and reading time. The idea is to gain basic computer skills while brushing up on English literacy. If the students complete the program by putting their time, attention and energy into their studies, they get to keep the used laptops they are assigned at the start of the class—in other words, if they learn, they earn.
The computers are donated by Comp4Kids Inc., a non-profit organization founded by Jonathan Zimmerman, a teacher at the Great Neck School District. Comp4Kids collects and refurbishes used computer equipment and distributes them for free to low-income families across Long Island and the tri-state area.
To track students’ progress and time spent working, the group uses IBM’s free Reading Companion software, which presents students with material to read into a microphone. Depending on the accuracy of the pronunciation of what is read into the microphone, the software gives positive reinforcement, asks the student to try again, or offers the correct reading of the words on the screen. As a student’s skill improves, the technology reads less so that the learner reads more.
In addition to receiving help through the computer programs and online tools, students like Ms. López are guided by their Spanish-speaking teachers. Mr. Duque, who works at the Bridgehampton National Bank office in Southampton, offers advice along the way. According to Ms. López, he has recommended that she immerse herself in English television, music and literature.
Just two weeks in, Ms. López said she was getting a little bit more fluent in her reading and on the computer. “I understand a little bit more,” she said. “I can do it for myself now, I’m very happy.”
The class comes as a response to a growing population of Latino residents within the Tuckahoe School District, according to Superintendent Chris Dyer. Approximately 55 percent of the student body is Hispanic or Latino, and many are in need of additional English language instruction. Unlike many English as a second language classes, the Digital Age Family Literacy Program offers a unique chance for parents and their kids to learn together.
Mr. Dyer said he sat in on a couple of classes and was pleased. “The atmosphere was positive, relaxed and family-centered,” he said. “The program’s design is to foster community support and connect 24/7/365 learning opportunities for working adults—on the families’ schedules.”
According to Ken Komoski, the founder of the EPIE Institute, their efforts have a big impact. “In dealing with Hispanic and Latino families, I’ve learned that they need to become more competent in English, which will enable them to become both contributors to their growth and their work, but also in their community,” he said, noting that not knowing the language can lock them out of the surrounding community in many ways.