A Collaboration to Promote E-inclusion of Low Income Students

William Fleischman


This paper describes the elements of an eight-year collaboration between Villanova University and the Julia de Burgos Bilingual Magnet Middle School (now, Julia de Burgos Bilingual Elementary School) designed to redress some of the obstacles to learning new technologies that affect young children from low income neighborhoods. The collaboration has its origins in the program in ethical issues in computing required of all computing sciences and information sciences majors – specifically, in the course module devoted to societal inequities involving access to computers and their use. In turn, the collaboration has become an important source of materials and insights for the computer ethics course.

At the inception of the Villanova – Julia de Burgos collaboration, the school was, as noted, a bilingual middle school in an economically disadvantaged, drug-ridden, and dangerous neighborhood of North Philadelphia. The school population was almost exclusively Hispanic (68%) and African American (31%) with more than three-quarters of the children eligible for free lunch, a widely accepted marker of community poverty. Julia de Burgos owed its magnet designation in part to its status as a bilingual school, but more importantly, to its organization into small, thematically-based, quasi-independent learning communities. One of these had already begun to achieve a level of success in preparing students to enter the newly established Philadelphia High School for Creative and Performing Arts. Nevertheless, the school ranked among the lowest in the city with respect to student scores on standardized tests of reading and mathematics proficiency.

The collaboration began in September 1998 when a Villanova graduate and alumnus of the computer ethics course who, among all candidates, had earned the highest score among all candidates on the City of Philadelphia teacher placement examination, accepted a position as a sixth grade teacher at Julia de Burgos. His discovery of deficiencies in technology at the school led directly to the first collaborative project – the design, implementation, and installation of a network ready computer laboratory utilizing equipment donated as part of outreach activities under the 1996 Howard Hughes Medical Institute Undergraduate Biological Sciences Initiative grant to Villanova University. The new laboratory had an immediate tonic effect on teachers, students, and parents at Julia de Burgos. We discuss some of the first applications and activities to which it gave rise.

In this paper, we describe and evaluate subsequent milestones of the collaboration including an ongoing series of reciprocal visits, additional gifts of equipment, Villanova participation in an innovative project to improve student reading proficiency (in which thirty families of children reading significantly below grade level were given personal computers for home use and provided subscriptions to Kidbiz 3000, an electronic service that delivers content from sources such as the New York Times, automatically rendered in English at the grade level appropriate to the individual student), and this year’s project in which all eighth grade students completed interdisciplinary exit projects exploring connections between various risk factors (disease, violence, drug abuse) and life expectancy under the guidance of a team of five Villanova undergraduates. These projects were particularly suited to cultivating global perspectives among Julia de Burgos students – for example, linking their concerns about HIV/AIDS in the local community with crises in Africa, Eastern Europe, and Southeast Asia.

We present a more detailed account of the background of the Villanova – Julia de Burgos collaboration with attention to the physical condition of the school and its surroundings, the curriculum, the role of parents, the conditions under which teachers and students work, and how these have changed over the course of eight years. Apart from the intrinsic interest of these points, they are significant because they constitute the boundary conditions that constrain the nature and scope of the collaborative projects we undertake and they form the reality confronting those Villanova computing and information science students who participate actively in the collaboration.

We discuss some of the results of the collaboration and particularly the complex web of reciprocal effects it has produced among students and faculty on both sides of the effort. Villanova student participants have produced video and digital photographic archives of their involvement with Julia de Burgos students and teachers. They have also kept diaries recording activities and impressions from their work, from which several Villanova students have produced remarkably sensitive and nuanced accounts of the life of an urban elementary school. All these materials have been incorporated into the module of the computing ethics course devoted to inequities in access to computers and allied technologies. They are especially valuable in that they constitute first-hand accounts of the conditions in an urban school – an environment with which few, if any, Villanova students are familiar – by contemporaries who are available for further discussion and clarification. In this way, these materials form an important supplement to the standard literature on issues of access and preparation for contemporary life in a world in which education and technological proficiency are increasingly critical.

Finally, we discuss some of the satisfactions and frustrations of this effort as well as some of the lessons learned about building a collaboration linking the university and elementary school environments. We indicate, particularly, the ways in which working on different time scales, different and often conflicting calendars, and different rhythms complicate the collaboration. We recognize the fragility of undertakings that depend critically on individuals rather than institutions, while affirming, paradoxically, the importance of persevering in such efforts. We note, also, evidence that a collaboration of this nature provides a valuable counterweight to the well-documented narrowing of the public school curriculum entailed by the high-stakes testing regime associated with current national educational initiatives in the United States.