Cleveland Senior Center’s Free Computer Classes Help Community Bridge Digital Divide

June 2017

Cleveland Senior Center’s Free Computer Classes Help Community Bridge Digital Divide

When Jameel Amir arrived for his first class at Ashbury Senior Computer Community Center (ASC3), the Cleveland resident was thoroughly unfamiliar with the machine sitting in front him.

A French professor who graduated from the University of California at Berkley, Amir belonged to a generation that reached adulthood without ever having been exposed to computer technology.

“I couldn’t even find the ‘On’ button,” Amir recalls. “I didn’t know a single thing.”

By the end of the eight-week course, Amir had learned to check email, pay bills, manage his prescription medications online and use Google and YouTube to research topics that interest him. He has since signed up for additional training as he prepares to return to teaching.

Amir sees computer classes for seniors as an important way to bridge not only the “digital divide,” but the socioeconomic divide as well.

“For many people, age or socioeconomic status has created a digital barrier to technology and the internet,” Amir says. “Those people are stymied in their ability to access many things that younger or more affluent people can access. ASC3 removes that barrier. It’s really a blessing to the community.”

Amir’s story embodies ASC3’s mission to “bridge the 'Digital Divide'" in inner-city communities by using free education and training to meet the technology needs of older adults and those with limited income.

ASC3 accomplishes that by providing internet access for less than $150 annually and free classes ranging from beginner-level through an IC3 certification that prepares students to become entry-level IT professionals.

The classes enable students to learn at an appropriate pace with the support of qualified instructors, says ASC3 director and research analyst Wanda Davis, who founded the nonprofit in 2002.

“When we first started there were very few places where folks could actually receive that training,” Davis says. “I think Ashbury has been a groundbreaking pioneer in raising awareness of the target population that we serve. Our motto is that the ability to learn is ageless. We open up the possibility that you can still learn, regardless if you’ve been out of school for a year or for 40 years. You can still pick up new skills.”

ASC3 now has four locations, with three satellite centers in addition to the original two-story brick building at 11011 Ashbury Avenue in Cleveland’s Glenville neighborhood.

The Ashbury building has served numerous roles in the community since its construction in 1919.

A family-owned hardware store occupied a portion of the first floor until 1998, while adjacent space housed a meat produce store, a local church and an ice cream parlor at various times.

The building sat vacant from 1998 until 2000, when Davis, a longtime advocate in the Glenville community, and her husband, Percel, saw an opportunity to help. They joined local business partners and neighborhood leaders to create a vision for a new community center that would support the reinvestment efforts that had been underway in the area since the late 1980s.

Davis’ group formed a board of directors, began fundraising and eventually received grants from local foundations and the City of Cleveland to set up a 15-station computer lab to serve local residents.

"At the time, I was having to re-skill and re-tool, and one of the things I saw was that everything was changing, everything was going to be computer-led,” Davis says. “We saw that there were no resources in our area to assist residents with that change. We conducted a survey and asked people if this was something they would like to see available to them. We had such an overwhelming response that we knew we had to make it happen.”

ASC3 opened in October 2002, welcoming 30 students for two class sessions. The center now serves 175 to 225 students each year. Of those, approximately 60 to 70 percent complete at least two eight-week training sessions.

First-time students receive a pre-assessment to determine their level of understanding and start by learning basic computer fundamentals, beginning with the use of a keyboard. From there, they advance to training on how to communicate safely online and eventually can move into higher-level classes, including Microsoft Office and other software, if they’re so inclined.

In 2005, ASC3 was chosen to participate in former mayor Jane Campbell’s “War on Poverty” digital initiative program. It now has partnerships with numerous Cleveland institutions and organizations as well as a variety of corporate and community sponsors.

KeyBank has joined in supporting the center by donating computer equipment that enables ASC3 to conduct mobile, off-site training with the use of laptops and operate an incentive-based program called “Earn Your Own Computer.

“The donation from KeyBank makes it possible for us to take the desktops students are using and send them home with them, and replace them with the donated computers,” Davis says. “It’s allowed us to reward students who have taken at least two classes and can demonstrate that if we give them a computer, they will use it.”

Plans call for additional expansion in northeast Ohio, Davis says, with the Collinwood and Euclid neighborhoods among the next candidates for satellite locations.

So far, Davis says, there is nothing to indicate the need for ASC3’s services has diminished.

“We’ve found that even though we’ve trained well over 6,000 people in our 15 years, there are many more residents out there who are interested in the training,” Davis says. “Everything we do is evolving online, so the need for the training continues to rise. For 15 years, we’ve always had a waiting list.”

Learn more about Ashbury Senior Computer Community Center.