Tonitta Fisher admits she was far from computer savvy when she decided to help start a technology-based business with a group of fellow Chicago high school students.

“There was a lot I didn’t know about the internet, like I didn’t even know what a URL was,” the 17-year-old said, referring to the Uniform Resource Locator, more commonly known as a web address.

But under the coaching of technology experts, accountants, and business owners involved in an emergent national program for urban high school students, Fisher and her colleagues have learned about computers, the internet, and the logistics of a business startup.

Today, the students have a professional proposal to launch an online tutoring and book-buying business–and they are being held up as an example of the success the National Urban League and Microsoft Corp. had hoped for when they set out to bridge the digital divide.

Tonitta Fisher, right, and her fellow students in Chicago developed a text and tutorial company with the help of Microsoft Corp. employees. (Associated Press photo)

“Computer literacy is basic to success in our society, and it’s critically important for people to fully participate in our society, as well as for career opportunities,” said Barbara Holt, education coordinator of the Chicago Urban League.

“Without that literacy, the disadvantages that people of color face are even wider,” Holt said.

Experts say many urban communities and their schools lack widespread access to technology, in part because of the expense.

Several programs are already working to close that divide, including a U.S. Department of Education grant program, called Community Technology Centers, that helps bring computers and internet access to poor communities.

Microsoft and the National Urban League teamed up to create another program that they hope to take from four pilot programs to 10 cities next year.

In its first year, teams of urban high schools students in Chicago, New York, Dallas, and Los Angeles spent six months training with experts to come up with technology-based business plans.

They will take those plans into competition July 24, with the winning team receiving $15,000 to help bring its business plan to life, pay college tuition, or buy computer equipment.

Many of the 60 students who began the program in January were hesitant at first to give up their Saturdays to participate, but they now say it was worth the time.

“It was hard because you still want to hang out and a lot of my friends were like ‘why don’t you just drop it?’ but I just wanted to follow through on it,” said Francine Lewis, who is in the New York Urban League program. “We were working together to actually make something we enjoy instead of just looking at it as only an educational experience.”

Audrey Martin, who heads education programs at the Greater Dallas Urban League, says the program reaches students in a way that a traditional school curriculum cannot.

“There’s only so much that you can cover in a lesson plan, and this is a smaller, more cohesive group, which allows for growth and innovative ideas,” Martin said.

“We’re sparking ideas in their minds that they can be entrepreneurs and showing them what they can accomplish,” said Sjonia Harper, a technology specialist at Microsoft’s offices in suburban Chicago and the lead instructor for the Chicago program. “The more possibilities they are exposed to, the more opportunities they believe they can have for themselves.”

The students are excited about the competition, and many say they want to use the prize money to start their business. One group has a proposal for a car detailing service; another proposes a web forum for teenagers to learn about music, art, health, and tourism.

Five of the Chicago participants met recently to work out the kinks in their business presentation on their online tutoring and book selling business, called Text and Tutor Connection Inc.

“If we want to win, we need to step up our game,” Fisher, the group’s CEO, told her colleagues as they reviewed questions that the competition judges might ask.

Across the room, Staci Thomas beamed as her 14-year-old son, Marcus, described the different services Text and Tutor could offer.

“I think this program should be in every school,” she said. “Many times we tell our kids the sky’s the limit … but nobody ever puts it in a format to where they can see what they can really do. This [program] gave them that opportunity.”

Links:

National Urban League

Microsoft Corp.