Aiming to help children who can’t afford computers, internet giant America Online (AOL), computer maker Gateway, and several other groups announced Nov. 8 a multimillion-dollar program of free systems, software, and after-school tutoring.

The program, called PowerUP, will provide $10 million in seed grants, free computers, internet connections, and volunteers for more than 5,000 after-school programs for poor children. The new nonprofit organization, which is intended to advance the goals of Colin Powell’s America’s Promise initiative, will be based in California’s Silicon Valley.

“Technology has changed people’s lives in ways we didn’t envision,” said Ted Waitt, chief executive officer of Gateway, which is donating 50,000 units to the cause. “It’s created an era of unprecedented prosperity, but not everyone shares that prosperity. The digital divide is real.”

Available to schools and community centers nationwide, PowerUP activities for disadvantaged children will include computer training, software, and lesson tutoring, as well as afternoon snacks, adult mentoring, and supervision, organizers said.

Waitt said computer makers recently have been able to lower the cost of units, but many families still can’t afford even the least expensive system.

The PowerUP program will focus on giving children access to computers and the internet after school, rather than at home.

Under the plan, children in grades K-12 will come to the centers when the school day ends for interactive learning games, using software and web sites provided by the project’s partners.

Competitive grants ranging from $5,000 to $25,000 in equipment and services are available to both new and existing after-school programs. Guidelines are available on the PowerUP web site.

“It’s nice that tens of millions of people are using the internet; it’s nice that businesses are able to grow,” said AOL founder Steve Case, who also chairs the new nonprofit organization. “But we really need to build a medium we can be proud of.”

Case deflected speculation that the project was an attempt to lock up the school or educational market against other competitors, saying the PowerUP sites could be reached through browsers other than its own Netscape.

In October, AOL and Gateway, which sells made-to-order personal computers, closed a deal to market and distribute each other’s products.

AOL, the world’s largest internet service provider, will give 100,000 free internet accounts to centers that need them. Hundreds of adult volunteers, including many from the national service program AmeriCorps, will work with children in the centers–many of which will be affiliated with the Boys and Girls Clubs and the YMCA, organizations that already provide after-school activities for poor children.

The Case Foundation—a charitable organization created by Case and his wife, Jean–will give $10 million in grants to local communities to set up centers or hire staff for existing centers.

Organizers of the project said 86 percent of the nation’s internet delivery is concentrated in the 20 largest cities. Furthermore, three-quarters of the households with annual incomes over $75,000 own computers; just 10 percent of the poorest families do.

A similar grant program administered by the U.S. Department of Education, called 21st Century Community Learning Centers, provides funding for after-school technology programs.

President Clinton wanted to triple the program’s $200 million budget, but the budget bill recently signed into law funds the program at $454 million this year.

America Online
http://www.aol.com

America’s Promise
http://www.powerup.org

AmeriCorps
http://www.cns.gov/americorps

Gateway Inc.
http://www.gateway.com

PowerUp program
http://www.powerup.org