PowerUP was created in November 1999 to provide a comprehensive package of computers, internet access, and trained supervision to underserved youth populations. Inspired by efforts to end the digital divide, PowerUP has scored substantial success in less than a year of existence and is well on its way to meeting the goals it announced when it began.

“We’ll have more than 250 sites wired and staffed by the end of this year,” said Rae Grad, chair of PowerUP. “We’re signing up more partners and building to a strong level.”

PowerUP’s mission is to give young people access to the wide range of content and information on the internet and, through that access, help them develop additional skills they need to succeed in the 21st century. “Computers are a means to achieve our ends: confident, capable adults who can participate fully in our economy and society,” Grad said.

The program is designed for the fast track, as would be expected of any program that has as two of its key founding members Steve Case, chief executive officer of America Online, and Ted Waitt, chief executive officer of Gateway Inc. PowerUP moves quickly by working with existing resources. Rather than trying to start computer programs from the ground up, PowerUP finds programs that currently appeal to youngsters and provides them with everything necessary to offer creative, challenging computer experiences.

“The beauty of our approach is that we go where the children are, we don’t have to go get them,” Grad said.

Successful applicants to PowerUP receive a full high-tech “Power Pack”: 10-20 networked Gateway computers, a printer, an internet connection, a specially designed education portal from America Online, and full-time, trained staff members.

PowerUP can provide professional support to each grant recipient because, much like the way it seeks existing youth programs, it trains adults already committed to the programs. Primarily, PowerUP obtains its staff from the Corporation for National Service, more commonly known as AmeriCorps/VISTA. AmeriCorps, the domestic Peace Corps, engages more than 40,000 Americans in full-time community service activities. As one of the founding members of PowerUP, AmeriCorps/VISTA will provide at least 400 teachers to serve in centers receiving PowerUP grants.

“AmeriCorps is crucial to our success,” Grad said. “AmeriCorps people are already doing what they’re doing for an organization. We are able to bring in additional training and resources for them, and they ensure that kids learn to use the technology we’ve provided.”

Identify community partners

Boys and Girls Clubs and YMCA programs have been the leading recipients of PowerUP grants in the first year. Therefore, schools that are seeking to participate in the program should partner with these groups or similar youth-oriented organizations in their communities, Grad suggested. “We encourage school administrators to look around the neighborhood and capitalize on what’s going on after school,” she said. “We know there are local programs almost anywhere, and it’s great if those programs can be linked back to local schools.”

However, applicants (volunteer groups or schools) do not need to have computer programs as current activities. “We can work with groups that already have an existing computer program going, or we can start from scratch,” Grad said.

One of PowerUP’s pilot projects illustrates how easily schools can participate. This project, at Holly Oak Elementary in San Jose, Calif., has installed an entire computer center in the school’s library. The after-school computer program at the site is supervised by YMCA staff.

“Find those partnerships. That’s how we create win-win situations,” Grad urged.

Bright future ahead

As the program’s first-year goals come into sight, Grad already is focusing on the next opportunities. She continues to sign up new partners: Microsoft, Hewlett-Packard, and Cisco Systems each are donating products and services to improve the Power Packs. “We want to be able to improve our array of services, and new partners can make that happen,” she said.

Other companies, such as Bank of America and ZDNet, have donated money to support PowerUP sites at specific locations and have encouraged employees to volunteer time as mentors at the sites. Grad anticipates adding more support of this type in the future.

More recently, the state of Virginia pledged $3 million to continue PowerUP’s efforts. The additional funding will support 100 new PowerUP technology centers in Virginia in 2001. Virginia’s commitment is the largest public sector grant received by PowerUP since its founding last year.

PowerUP is in the midst of revamping its web site so online applications will be easier to submit. The updated web site should be available by Oct. 1. n