Hazel Green (right), a Springview Apartments resident, finishes her final computer test. Photo by Lea Thompson
Ensuring that more people have access to computers, could help boost economic, educational, and personal opportunities. Credit: Lea Thompson for the San Antonio Report

Until two weeks ago, most of the students in the ConnectHome training program had never used or owned a personal computer, but they celebrated their new found computer skills – and new MacBook Pros – during a graduation ceremony Thursday afternoon.

The San Antonio Housing Authority (SAHA) recognized the local program’s first 14 graduates who live in the public housing Springview Apartments with diplomas, cake and laptops donated by Google Hardware.

The program comes just a year after Google Fiber selected San Antonio as one of 28 communities in the country to receive expanded internet and broadband services. In February, Google Fiber and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development announced that five San Antonio Housing Authority complexes would receive 1,000-megabits-per-second internet service through ConnectHome.

But those hyper-fast speeds will mean nothing if the communities living in housing projects don’t have a computer or don’t know how to effectively use the internet. That’s why the ConnectHome pilot program exists: to give users a first step into digital literacy.

Five SAHA communities have been selected for the pilot program of the ConnectHome initiative: Springview Apartments, Alazan­ Apache, Cassiano Apartment Homes, Fair Avenue Apartments and Villa Tranchese Apartments. Springview is the first to host the program, but the other four complexes will roll out training courses in the coming months. SAHA hopes to eventually expand the training program to all residents at its public housing sites.

(Read More: Google Fiber Coming to Public Housing in San Antonio)

“It’s amazing to see these graduates in action,” said Rosario Neaves, SAHA director of communications and public affairs. “This is a class made up entirely of women, most of them have kids and other responsibilities. But they’re here and they’re moving forward with these new skills.”

The program provides a classroom for learning, and a separate area for children and hired caretakers. However, children were present to celebrate and play with their mothers on graduation day. Most of the children were too young to truly comprehend the significance of the program, but they mirrored the excitement of their mothers and the digital ambassadors.

Within the academy’s four, two-hour classes, students learned about their new computer’s hardware and operating system, how to access the internet and use Google, how to sign up for BiblioTech and use the digital library on their devices, and how to avoid predators and viruses.

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Catarina Velasquez, the educational consultant for Connect Home, was surprised when the class presented her with flowers. Photo by Lea Thompson

“Everyone expressed different interests when they signed up for the class –  some of them wanted to use it to start an online business, to continue their schooling or complete their GED, helping their children with homework or research,” said Catarina Velasquez, an educational consultant for ConnectHome. “Nobody came in just casually wanting to learn about computers, everyone came in wanting to learn, and now they have the opportunity.”

Several students were unsure that they would be able to learn or remember everything taught during the two-week course.

Maria Garcia, one of the graduates, learned about the class from a flyer that had been posted around the apartment complex.

“My daughter, she’s a third grader at the nearby IDEA Carver Academy, convinced me to sign up,” Garcia said. “I haven’t owned a computer before, but (the digital ambassadors) helped me understand and it was a great experience.”

Garcia plans on using the computer to help her children with their homework, and she’s excited to use it for herself, too. “I can’t believe this is mine. I’m so grateful to SAHA and ConnectHome and the teachers for all their help.”

MacBook Academy student Adriana Buentello helps fellow student Maria Garcia  (right) with the final test for the course. Photo by Lea Thompson
MacBook Academy student Adriana Buentello helps fellow student Maria Garcia (right) with the final test for the course. Photo by Lea Thompson

The program currently limits one device per family, it was laptops for this MacBook Academy, but graduates have told Velasquez and the other digital ambassadors that they’ll be returning on Tuesday for the next class on Chromebooks.

“It’s been a long time coming, we’ve been trying to do this for five or six years now,” said Marvin Lampkins, digital ambassador and president of the resident council. “Doesn’t matter how it got here, it’s here and it will change things. Go tell your neighbors.”

To learn more about the ConnectHome program and its pilot communities, click here. SAHA, the San Antonio Public Library, and Each One Teach One are teaming up to offer Digital Inclusion Fellowships to increase digital literacy and broadband adoption in communities that struggle to access technology. Applications close May 13, and fellows will be notified in June. To learn more about the fellowships, or to apply, click here.

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Top Image: Hazel Green (right), a Springview Apartments resident, finishes her final computer test. Photo by Lea Thompson.

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Lea Thompson

Lea Thompson, a former reporter at the Rivard Report, is a Texas native who has lived in Houston, Austin and San Antonio. She enjoys exploring new food and culture events.