The great myths furnish any number of metaphors for the sway of high technology. The fallen dot-commer with the melted wings—that’s Icarus. The Internet as a portal to beguiling knowledge, wealth, and power—that would have dazzled Dr. Faustus. When considering the influence of technology in the District, however, Archie Prioleau, founder of a high-tech training center in Southwest D.C., finds relevance in the story of Prometheus.
After the gods deprived man of fire, it was Prometheus who boldly lit his torch at the sun and returned the flame to Earth. As Prioleau sees it, the story is a heroic tale of the effort to close the gap between the strong and the weak, the haves and have-nots. Which is more or less the way Prioleau sees the story of high technology in D.C.
“Prometheus supplied mankind with the power that the gods didn’t want them to have,” says Prioleau. “Today, we have the situation in which technology resources are rich in places like Northern Virginia, but meanwhile, our own ‘gods’ in the District haven’t fully allowed for people in the city to have the same kind of access to that power. So today, Prometheus would be the engine by which we can share that power with everyone.”
Prioleau’s mission has been to turn D.C. Link and Learn (DCLL) into that very engine. The state-of-the-art center opened in 1998 to provide new-economy skills to inner-city children and adults. Today, DCLL offers approximately 50 different courses, from basic keyboarding to Cisco network associate certification classes. To put it mildly, Prioleau has faith in technology as an equalizing force and a means by which even those on the lowest economic rungs can achieve self-sufficiency.
“Tech know-how today is as important as fire was to primitive cultures,” says Prioleau. “Those without it simply won’t survive.”
Prioleau is prone to making rhetorical leaps, yet by no means is he the only person in town who’s high on high-tech businesses, whether they’re Internet firms, software developers, or telecommunications companies. Despite the recent barrage of dot-bombs and a cooling national economy, high tech in general is still a hot inspirational commodity. The belief is widespread among many of the District’s leaders that technology—and the pursuit of a technology career—represents the best chance for the city’s underprivileged residents to achieve some level of economic parity with the wealthier and better-educated.
The notion that technology will solve age-old problems is nothing new, and it isn’t just a product of media hype. Rather, the feeling is predictably human. Theorists have dubbed the age-old phenomenon “techno ecstasy.”
A notable example is the open letter Mayor Anthony A. Williams recently circulated among potential donors to the District’s new technology high school project. In the letter, released Feb. 27, Williams wrote, “My vision is for our city to become the technology capital of the world.” He added: “The entire world is watching us as the place to look for great technological achievements.”
Mayors are permitted to exaggerate, of course, and Williams really has no choice but to say that the District’s best days are coming. After all, he’s staked part of his legacy on making technology a major force in Washington. In January 2000, Williams convened the Digital Capital Alliance (DCA), an advisory group of tech-company CEOs with whom he has regularly rubbed shoulders and talked policy. Earlier this year, Williams signed the New E-conomy Transformation Act of 2000 (NET 2000), landmark legislation that offers technology companies a package of tax incentives to locate in the District. Several other tech-related projects aimed at putting D.C. on par with Maryland and Virginia’s tech corridors are also in the works.
But even the robust high-tech economy the region as a whole has enjoyed is no panacea. Last fall, the Potomac Conference, a research arm of the Greater Washington Board of Trade, released an independently produced study called The Potomac Index, which evaluated the region’s strengths and weaknesses in five different categories. Although the study lauded the Washington area for creating new businesses at a higher rate than Silicon Valley, it noted that the area’s high-tech revolution had produced little or no benefit for poor families. According to the study, from 1993 to 1998, the boom years for the Internet, the income gap between the region’s wealthiest and poorest residents increased by approximately 30 percent.
So it’s no surprise that all the tech talk has produced its share of skeptics. They include an array of community leaders, educators, nonprofit workers, developers, and tech executives who contend that city leaders are largely dealing with technology in a vacuum. Some doubt that this pro-tech push will offer anything more than a false promise for many D.C. residents, the underprivileged in particular. Recent developments suggest that the state of tech in the District is not as gloomy as some say: If nothing else, tech-related initiatives have generated plenty of good spin for a city that’s trying to shed its image as a bad place to do business. However, the notion that the District is about to become some sort of wired-up City on a Hill ignores far too many valleys.
Take DCLL, for example. The largest tech-training center in town, DCLL is widely hailed by elected officials and tech executives as an inspiration. But it’s no magic bullet.
On a Friday afternoon in March, inside DCLL’s futuristic conference room, Prioleau is staring down at a sleek, polished metal table, telling the story of his organization’s successes—and challenges. Three years ago, Prioleau formed DCLL with the help of more than 40 corporations, four federal government agencies, and various D.C. government offices. Since opening, the facility has become a hub for a vast network of public and private partnerships. In addition to its array of day and night tech courses, DCLL has worked in conjunction with several District schools and now offers in-house career counseling/job placement services for course enrollees. Approximately 1,500 D.C. residents have taken classes at DCLL. Many of the program’s graduates have gone directly into jobs, not just for such local technology firms as Electronic Data Systems, but also for a wide range of more traditional employers, from Amtrak to the D.C. Public Schools (DCPS) system.
Some of the people who have come through DCLL’s doors already had a background—and thus an interest—in technology. Other enrollees were employed but in need of extra training. Yet many people have come to DCLL lacking both a job and a prior interest in high tech. Many of them—be they high school dropouts or displaced workers—reached DCLL via referrals from the D.C. Department of Employment Services. And so far, Prioleau’s vision of tech training as a ticket to success for the down-and-out has been difficult to realize. For instance, 80 out-of-school youth and displaced workers have taken DCLL classes for a minimum of three months since DCLL opened. To date, only 60 percent of them have landed jobs, according to DCLL’s Web site.
The problem, says Prioleau, isn’t job availability; tech companies throughout the District and the region are desperately seeking trained workers to fill literally thousands of job openings. Rather, Prioleau says, the problem often is persuading someone who’s out of work that a five- or six-month computer course is going to pay off in the end.
“Link and Learn does a great job, but it’s not enough,” says Duane Gautier, president of ARCH Development Corp., a Southeast-based nonprofit that provides testing and career assessment services to area youth. “It’s not that there’s a problem with these programs themselves, but if someone has no background using technology, it’s not realistic to expect that minimal training is sufficient. Until we reach technology to students at much younger ages, we’re not going to make technology skills instantly relevant or achievable to dropouts.”
The problems are more fundamental than computer skills. For instance, of the 700 to 1,000 students that ARCH tests each year, 66 percent cannot perform basic math or read at an eighth-grade level. So the fact that only 10 percent of them have even been on the Internet is a secondary problem.
“The difficulty is getting people on the lowest rungs into the program,” says one of Prioleau’s colleagues, who asked not to be identified. “I’m one of Archie’s biggest fans, but for all its connections, DCLL has trouble with community outreach. It can’t get into the back streets. Until more people know what DCLL is, it can’t reach to the clientele that needs to be reached the most.”
Another obstacle is cost. Although beginner-level classes run $50 for a series of courses, higher-level classes can run as high as $1,800 per semester. Prioleau says DCLL charges as little as possible to meet operating expenses, but he acknowledges that money is one of many factors that limits DCLL’s reach.
“Technology’s only a tool,” concedes Prioleau. “We can teach technology, but if someone doesn’t have the other skills, they’re not going to survive. The question is: How do you teach technology while incorporating other life skills and professional skills?”
The difference between Prioleau and some of his colleagues is that Prioleau believes the District is about to witness a turnaround.
“We’re on the verge of creating something larger than the sum of our parts in D.C.,” says Prioleau. “And technology’s the key to it.”
Gautier hopes that’s true, but he has a more sober view.
“This is certainly a tremendous time of opportunity with regard to technology in D.C., but only if people are sharing that opportunity,” says Gautier. “City leaders’ sole purpose shouldn’t just be to lure workers here from the suburbs. That’s no way to develop a true high-tech industry. The benefits of technology aren’t going to just somehow flow into city neighborhoods. We’ve made progress in D.C., but we’re playing a game of catch-up, and we’re still way behind.”
In terms of developing sound high-tech policies, the District is an exceedingly late bloomer. In the last decade, while the Washington area (read: suburbs) was enjoying explosive high-tech growth, city leaders, plagued by countless financial troubles, were apparently incapable of either seeing or seizing on the tech boom. Whereas Fairfax County established a technology council in the early ’80s, D.C. didn’t start its own until 1998. While the Northern Virginia Community College (NOVA) was linking up with technology partners a decade ago, the University of the District of Columbia (UDC) was handcuffed by a severe financial crisis that limited its programs.
So it’s no surprise that giants like America Online (AOL) have located in the suburbs, where the new-economy work force is strong. Now, most observers estimate that D.C. is a decade behind its suburbs in terms of infrastructure, the development of public-private partnerships, workforce training, and the kind of business-development initiatives that have powered the tech growth in other jurisdictions.
The D.C. government has also been ill-equipped to assign a high priority to the technology revolution because its own infrastructure is a mess. Many District agencies get along with antiquated computer systems, some of which still aren’t wired to the Internet. The $35 million system that handles all the D.C. government’s financial reporting has been riddled with problems, not least of them the fact that many employees were never trained to use it. And last year, District officials announced that the nine-year, $20 million overhaul of D.C.’s computerized payroll system had failed to correct numerous flaws. D.C. was also the last major U.S. city to develop a Y2K program. (In hindsight, at least that instance of policy sluggishness turned out to be fortuitous.)
Until recently, nobody even knew how many tech companies had come to Washington during the tech surge. In January, DC Agenda, a nonprofit civic group, released the first-ever comprehensive study of D.C.’s technology industry. Conducted by George Mason University Professor Stephen Fuller, the study—Washington, D.C.’s Technology Industry—reveals that there were 332 tech firms in D.C. at the end of 1999. Although that’s nearly five times as many as in 1994, the study reveals that although tech jobs account for 11 percent of employment in the region, they account for only 1 percent of jobs in the District.
“Technology is a component of the D.C. economy, but it’s not the future of the D.C. economy,” Fuller says. “Still, there are ways the city can build on that 1 percent.”
Williams has repeatedly pledged to do just that by offering the warm handshake to the tech industry that previous administrations never extended. But it was Williams’ frequent political nemesis, Republican At-Large Councilmember David Catania, who conceived the bulk of the NET 2000 incentives package. Since then, high tech has shown its awesome power to cause political friction, if nothing else. During last year’s debate over NET 2000’s passage, public officials repeatedly collided over numerous components of the bill.
The makings of the city’s tech rivalry started in May 2000, when Catania formed the New E-conomy Advisory Group—his own cadre of D.C. tech executives—to solicit policy suggestions from the tech community. But not everyone cheered. As the legislation started to take shape, some members of Williams’ group started grumbling that they weren’t involved in the process.
“Originally, the groups were at arm’s length,” says Elliott Frutkin, the DCA’s co-chair and president of Doceus, a D.C.-based Web consulting firm. “Although Catania deserves a lot of credit for his work on NET 2000, there was a sense among some people in the [tech] community that Catania’s interest in promoting technology was purely political.”
That may be the opinion in some circles, but it seems clear that Catania beat Williams’ group to the punch by putting NET 2000 together in a relatively short period of time.
“Catania simply made this his issue and took the initiative,” says Ward 2 Councilmember Jack Evans, who chairs the council’s Committee on Finance and Revenue. “He had his bill down on paper before the administration had come up with anything concrete.”
The final version of NET 2000 is a goodie bag of targeted incentives for technology companies, a bid that Catania hopes will level the playing field between D.C. and its tech-infested suburbs. The act provides tax credits to qualified companies that recruit and train workers, and to companies that move workers into the city. NET 2000 also grants a five-year property-tax abatement to qualified companies and cuts corporate taxes for tech companies from 9 percent to 6 percent, on par with Virginia’s corporate tax.
Although the bill won unanimous approval from councilmembers, it didn’t pass without some rancor and reservations. At a council meeting last December, for example, Chair Linda Cropp warned that the District’s chief financial officer had predicted that the bill would cost the city $3.8 million—about three times more than the original estimate—in fiscal year 2002. Some of those concerns still linger, especially in the ongoing high-tech shakeout. Although the District government just posted its fourth consecutive balanced budget, with a sizable surplus, many D.C. leaders are biting their nails. Their worry: The long-term strength of the national economy has hidden many of the District’s lingering financial problems. Analysts say that should the national economy continue to cool, the income, sales, and real estate taxes that constitute three-fourths of D.C. tax collections will drop, drastically thinning surpluses.
Yet, the cloud over D.C.’s nascent tech industry might have a silver lining if the slowdown continues. As Fuller’s report reveals, Uncle Sam provides an uncommonly strong underpinning for the District’s high-tech sector. In 1999, the federal government accounted for $1.2 billion of a total of $1.3 billion of all technology spending in the District. Government contracting is not the sexiest business in the world of high tech, but it just might provide a reliable backbone for the city’s tech economy during a downturn, according to Fuller and other analysts.
Catania is visibly proud of the bill he championed—although he may be a tad weary of recent talk of how NET 2000 might bankrupt the city. On a Monday afternoon in February, Catania has just returned to his Judiciary Square office from a “thank-you luncheon,” where he toasted many of the city staff members who helped work on the bill. In a few minutes, he has to meet with another reporter for another interview. The topic: high tech, of course.
Checking his watch and talking at light speed, Catania seems as scattered today as the explosion of Post-it notes that completely obscure the painting behind his desk. But he zeros in on what the NET 2000 process has taught him about D.C. government.
“Whenever something new comes along, we hear from the Chicken Little contingent,” says Catania. “They wake up every morning and say, ‘This is the day the sky’s gonna fall.’ Well, that’s just bullshit. If we live within our means, we can make adjustments. If there’s a more severe economic downturn, that’s all the more reason to do whatever we can to assist the technology companies that we’re trying to welcome to the District.”
No matter how the economy turns, Catania argues, D.C. will recoup in business income taxes far more than it hands out in tax incentives.
“What we’ve done is to lay the foundation for the District’s renaissance, but we can only legislate so much,” says Catania. “The ball’s in the executive branch’s court now. Attracting technology companies to the District and developing a broad base of technology programs is crucial if we want to give kids a chance to get a job programming computers instead of cooking hamburgers.”
But it’s unclear how any NET 2000 provision is capable of taking anyone out of a McDonald’s uniform. Catania notes that his bill offers wage credits for hiring and training welfare recipients and ex-offenders, and that the New E-conomy Advisory Group has begun working with District educators to develop a tech-training program for teachers.
In terms of sufficiently addressing workforce development, though, D.C. has a long way to go, according to several executives. Perhaps because virtually every tech executive in town is a member of one tech council or another, however, no employer contacted for this story was willing to go on the record with a no-bull assessment of the city’s dire workforce-development issues.
“It’s not unrealistic to say that people who are slogging away in service-industry jobs right now could get into the world of high tech with the right training, because the jobs will be there,” says the employment director for one local telecommunications company. “But the city hasn’t given any serious thought to developing anything resembling a technology-training curriculum at the school level, so it’s totally unrealistic to expect that poor people are going to get some instant boost from an influx of technology firms.”
“On the business level, we’ve done good things with this bill,” says Ward 7 Councilmember Kevin Chavous. “But I have many reservations that we’re not doing enough to tackle more of the root issues, like unemployment. To have this effort to recruit big businesses and not take other steps to complement that effort, well, that would just be insulting to someone who lacks a pipeline to all this technology.”
The framed drawing that hangs outside Catania’s office at One Judiciary Square has the feel of the brave new world he’s imagining. It’s an artist’s rendering of the future New York Avenue Metro station on the Red Line, which will serve the city’s designated tech-development area. The picture is a bright, orangey depiction of the station at rush hour; standing on a sleek, open-air platform, diverse commuters display content, purposeful expressions as they approach the arriving train. It makes you feel optimistic just to look at it.
Following a groundbreaking ceremony last December, Metro is now working on building that very station. But the surrounding area does not yet have the daydreamy feel of Catania’s print. The section of Northeast that city leaders tout as the city’s future high-tech hub—dubbed “NoMa,” for “North of Massachusetts Avenue”—has been moribund for years. Once-grand neighborhoods are full of dilapidated row houses, many of which sit vacant. (“There’s no shortage of what we call ‘abando-miniums’ around here,” one homeless man tells me on a recent visit to the area.) A lone Wendy’s is just about the only sign of consumer culture near the future Metro stop.
Even some of the symbols of rebirth here are reminders of the cooling national economy. Not far from the future Metro stop, for example, the old People’s Drug warehouse recently received a makeover to become the “Washington Gateway,” with more than 350,000 square feet of space designed and wired especially for tech tenants. According to the project’s developers, the first part of the project is complete, but no tenants have moved in.
Nearby, at Eckington Place at Florida and New York Avenues, XM Satellite Radio has taken over the 120,000-square-foot structure that once housed a printing plant. XM aims to pioneer the concept of CD-quality satellite radio (see “The Sky Is Calling,” 2/16), offering listeners 100 channels of music and news for $9.95 per month. The $62 million facility will employ at least 350 people.
The District government bent over backward to land XM, offering liberal incentives that will save the company more than $10 million in taxes. Now, city officials frequently flaunt XM as the poster child for tech development in NoMa. But XM’s not exactly starting off with a bang. Shares of XM stock dropped 26 percent in February after the company announced that it would need to raise at least $400 million in the next two years to implement its ambitious growth plans.
It’s anyone’s guess whether XM will become the next big-budget, big-dreaming high-tech company to crash. The jury’s still out on NoMa, too.
Brian Hecht is the president and CEO of Enews.com, a local company that sells discount magazine subscriptions over the Web. He’s one tech executive who’s skeptical of D.C.’s potential to become a high-tech powerhouse.
“D.C. still is behind other major cities in terms of how many buildings are sufficiently wired and capable of housing high-tech companies,” says Hecht. “The city’s making a good effort with NET 2000, but the NoMa area has a long way to go before a lot of companies will locate there. The challenge for D.C. will be overcoming its stigma as a difficult place to locate and do business.”
Hecht moved a portion of his company from Northwest D.C. to Rosslyn in 1999, he says, because he couldn’t find sufficient office space in the District. Although he praises NET 2000 as a good start, Hecht’s not sure how much the bill will benefit small companies. Tax breaks, for instance, aren’t relevant to most start-ups, which usually don’t have big profits. And other industry analysts say that tax differentials between the city and suburbs are not major concerns for most young companies. That’s significant given that GMU’s Fuller and other analysts say the District’s technology future lies in nurturing fragile, smaller firms—not in luring AOL-sized giants.
Perhaps the biggest obstacle facing tech companies in D.C. is finding affordable, flexible space. D.C. doesn’t have the green space to compete with the vast swaths of land that have sprouted miles of office parks in Northern Virginia’s Dulles corridor. Because the District has never had a strong manufacturing base, there isn’t a wealth of big buildings like the one XM took over. And many landlords in the city simply aren’t tech-friendly, because they’ve never had to be. Although some local tech executives say that D.C. rents are competitive with those in the suburbs, D.C. landlords are, by and large, relatively demanding. Because many D.C. property owners are accustomed to renting space to big-time law firms and lobbying concerns, they usually demand huge deposits and long-term leases. By contrast, tech companies tend to grow fast and move often.
“We can’t expect technology to be a major force in D.C. right away, because the city’s still adjusting,” says Mario Morino, founder of the Morino Institute, a local company that nurtures start-ups. “In the short term, there won’t be a huge influx of people coming in from the suburbs.”
But within the burgeoning community of dot-com and e-commerce companies downtown, there is a core of young techies who vastly prefer the District’s urban verve to office-park blandness. They are people like Scott McLoughlin, the CEO of the Adrenaline Group, a software-development company that started in Northern Virginia but eventually settled downtown.
“D.C.’s simply a more hip, desirable place to work, because it offers more culture, more entertainment, more everything,” says McLoughlin. “While there was a migration to the suburbs previously, I think there’ll be a strong push among younger executives to move from the suburbs into downtown Washington.”
The real question is whether their employees themselves will move into D.C. Today, about 65 percent of the District’s workforce resides outside the city, according to the D.C. Office of Tax and Revenue. That means D.C. can demand income tax from only 35 percent of its workers—and you can bet the mayor knows that statistic by heart. As a component of the effort to attract more resident workers to D.C., the Williams administration is planning zoning changes and other new incentives to spark downtown housing development.
Yet sometimes different development policies can end up at odds with one another. Case in point: the recent “tech hotel” controversy.
Also known as data center facilities, tech hotels are buildings that house loads of computer and telecommunications equipment and serve as Web-hosting and -switching hubs for Internet-based firms. Across the country, real estate investors have turned obsolete manufacturing plants, derelict office buildings, and failed retail centers into tech hotels. Instead of gathering dust, buildings that symbolize the old economy thus become bulwarks of the new one.
Last year, when construction, leasing, and business activity started picking up in NoMa, so did the demand for data centers. But last fall, city officials suddenly started to worry that an explosion of data centers would do little to revitalize the area, and the mayor subsequently ordered a 120-day moratorium on the development of new tech hotels. The news shocked the city’s burgeoning technology infrastructure industry.
Later, the mayor took aim at tech hotels during the NET 2000 markup. As a result, Catania reluctantly agreed to disqualify companies from tax breaks if they realized more than half of their gross revenues from data-center operations. To date, the D.C. Zoning Commission has not finalized its new tech-hotel regulations, leaving some developers with multi-million-dollar projects dangling on hold.
The abruptness of the city’s moratorium and the lingering confusion over the future of data-center policy have caused plenty of ire. The moratorium incident couldn’t help but remind local businesspeople of last fall’s Tenleytown tower fiasco, in which Williams, under pressure from angry neighbors, halted the construction of a telecom tower that was already half-complete.
“When the District government is consistent in its message and its regulations, it’s capable of sending out a very good overall message to businesses that are looking at the city,” says Mary Rudolph, director of D.C. Government Affairs at the Greater Washington Board of Trade. “But when the local government hiccups or stops deals in the middle of the game, that has a profoundly negative effect on the District’s pro-business message.”
This is no sporting event, but there’s some serious cheerleading taking place. It’s 8:30 on a Tuesday morning in February, and inside a stately downtown conference room, a slew of D.C. officials and corporate honchos have filed in for a morning of trading business cards, nibbling muffins, and applauding the city’s grandest technology project to date: the resurrection of McKinley High School in Northeast.
Once one of the city’s flagship schools, McKinley gained the nickname “Tech” because it offered an array of vocational training in numerous trades, from electrical engineering to printing. Since the storied school closed three years ago, the crumbling brick building has become a monument to the city’s education crisis and economic decline. But all that background just adds to the phoenix-from-the-ashes story line that’s now developing.
Here’s the plan that people have come to applaud this morning: The mammoth McKinley building, located at 2nd and T Streets NE, will reopen in fall of 2002 as the “D.C. Technology High School at McKinley.” A magnet school, McKinley will prepare 800 full-time students for college or entry-level jobs by using computers and the Internet in all classes. Electives will range from Web-page development to computer-based music theory.
Additionally, the site’s 23 acres will become a state-of-the-art technology campus, with night and weekend tech-training classes for adults. The city will offer to lease chunks of space so tech companies can move in. Those companies, in turn, will offer internships, apprenticeships, and jobs, and will help design the high school’s curriculum. Ultimately, the site will house a community college and a technology incubator all in one.
This morning’s master of ceremonies is none other than Prioleau, a 1968 McKinley graduate and the project’s director.
“There’s this implication that D.C.’s never first in any category, that we’re just not ready for this or that,” says Prioleau from the podium. “Well, this is a chance to be first in something, a model for the nation.”
The applause keeps coming as DCPS Superintendent Paul Vance delivers a passionate speech, quoting Thurgood Marshall and Lyndon B. Johnson along the way. “Make no mistake,” says Vance, “McKinley will make history.”
A few minutes later, Mayor Williams tells the audience that McKinley will further “the education renaissance that’s happening in the District”—perhaps the only comment this morning that prompts a few disbelieving head shakes in the audience.
After proclaiming that those involved in the project are “doing God’s work,” Williams poses for the obligatory shot with a corporate donor. Sprint has made the first contribution—$100,000—to the McKinley project. For a half-minute or so, Williams and David Thomas, Sprint’s vice president of corporate relations, stand side by side holding the enormous check. As the cameras flash, you can almost feel the envy that will swell among principals in cash-strapped DCPS schools when they see the picture in the paper the next morning.
According to Williams, the McKinley project will cost at least $50 million. The mayor has pledged $20 million to the project this year and plans to put in for an additional $20 million in fiscal 2002. The $10 million difference is supposed to come from corporate donations, which the city has just started to solicit. One source close to the project says business executives have not exactly fallen all over themselves with excitement about McKinley.
“There’s interest, but also a lot of questions [about McKinley],” says one senior employee at a major D.C.-based tech company, who asked not to be identified. “The prevailing attitude is: ‘Before our company puts money into that project, we’re going to wait and see if it’s actually going to pan out.’”
Ironically, this project that’s supposed to elevate the District’s school system has elicited little more than deep sighs from some education activists. Jerald Woody Sr., for one, sees McKinley’s tech-ed scheme as a misguided effort (see “Vocation, Vocation, Vocation,” 7/21/00). It’s not that Woody’s a Luddite; he doesn’t have a problem with computers per se. He just fears that a focus on high technology won’t provide kids with the basic skills they will need to get jobs. In fact, Woody advocates more support for the DCPS’s traditional vocational training programs—old-fashioned hammer-and-nails lessons such as McKinley used to offer. Woody’s formed the Schools to Careers Committee to foster more interaction between D.C. schools and the local business community.
“This new high school is one of those recurring fads, the same old song and dance,” says Woody. “They’re going to put up all this money for a new school when most of the old schools aren’t succeeding, aren’t preparing students for jobs of all kinds.”
If Woody’s view represents an extreme, there are other McKinley skeptics, including some school board members who say they’ve mostly been left out of planning the project. They question how a school system with a 51 percent graduation rate (in 1999)—and myriad other problems—will benefit from an all-star tech school. To them, the new McKinley is little more than a placebo.
“If we’re not meeting basic needs throughout the school system, we’re missing the boat,” says Angela Jones, executive director of D.C. Action for Children, a child-advocacy group based in Northwest. Jones, who grew up in Anacostia, worries that McKinley will “skim the cream,” by taking the best and brightest students from the system and placing them together in one school, thus increasing the inequality of students’ educational experiences.
“This sure seems like putting an awful lot of eggs in one basket,” says Jones.
The mayor paints a different picture, however.
“Clearly, we can’t just think in terms of assisting kids who want to be techies,” says Williams, speaking in private a few minutes after the McKinley shindig. “We’ve got to think of high technology not just in terms of jobs that kids will get, but also how to utilize technology in everyday life, how to join tech partners to our youth in a meaningful way. McKinley will foster those [relationships].”
D.C. Board of Education President Peggy Cooper Cafritz says that the school system as a whole would benefit from having a cutting-edge role model in its midst.
“This is a chance for D.C. not to think small,” says Cafritz, who recently caused a stir with her public remark that half of D.C. high school teachers were unfit to teach. “This project will allow us to ask companies, ‘What would it take for a student to someday become president of your company?’ We’re not just going to be satisfied with a school that prepares students only for low-level jobs.”
The day after the McKinley event, another tech-related meeting is in full swing. Only this one’s no pep rally. This gathering’s on the east side of the river, at Our Lady of Perpetual Help Catholic Church. The church sits on a steep hill that offers one of the most striking views in all of Washington. To the west, the downtown cityscape appears dense, powerful, and, most of all, distant. This afternoon, that feeling of distance from the rest of the city frames almost every conversation overheard in the church’s cafeteria.
Dozens of people have gathered here to begin plotting a technology course for east-of-the-river communities. Nobody has brought directions, though. As at other tech-related events, there’s giddy technology talk here, but it’s tempered by a good deal of frustration and uneasiness about the very developments—McKinley, NET 2000—that city leaders are routinely praising.
Today’s event is sponsored by the East of the River Technology Collaborative, the advocacy arm of the 2M Center, a Southeast-based nonprofit civic group. Although today’s topic is “Bridging the Digital Divide Through Effective Public Policy,” nearly all of the dozen or so speakers say the term “digital divide” has become obsolete, for it typically conjures nothing more than the image of an incomplete infrastructure: schools not wired, computers not owned, Internet access not available.
Sure, several youth workers at today’s event can tell different versions of the all-too-familiar tale of being unable to log kids on to the Internet in public-school computer labs. As representatives from the office of the D.C. Chief Technology Officer readily admit, the installation of high-speed connections on this side of the river is years behind the rest of the city. Furthermore, there are teachers here who say that their schools don’t have computers available to children at all. But that’s old news.
If people here today agree on one thing, it’s that it’s impossible to achieve equity simply by making sure that schools in poor communities have the same student-to-computer ratios as schools in wealthier communities. Recently, the Federal Communications Commission’s E-rate program has helped some underperforming D.C. schools and poor communities gain Internet access. But many workers in D.C.’s vast youth nonprofit field say that initiatives just scratch the surface. The District’s poorest schools have little in the way of tech training and almost no available technical support. Students in underserved communities are more likely to use computers for drill-and-practice exercises, whereas students in wealthier communities are more likely to use computers for project-based or collaborative learning. The difference is crucial: In the first case, the computer is in control and leads students through lessons; in the second, the students are controlling computers for their own purposes.
Similarly, even if computers and connections magically appeared in every city home overnight, most people here today believe they wouldn’t make much of a difference. A recent report, Online Content for Low-Income and Underserved Americans, published by the California-based Children’s Partnership advocacy group, states that although many impoverished communities are slowly gaining access to the Internet, many are not benefiting, because of “content barriers.” The first is a lack of locally relevant Web content. Another is illiteracy: The Internet generally functions on a sixth-grade reading level, but 22 percent of American adults do not have that level of reading and writing skills, according to the U.S. Department of Education. Some estimates put the illiteracy rate at 30 percent in communities east of the Anacostia River.
“Talking about a digital divide in terms of hardware is just scratching the surface,” Ambrose Lane Jr., 2M’s executive director, tells the audience. “The real divide is economic. The real divide is cultural. When District leaders address that, that’s when you’ll have a technology city.”
This afternoon, many in the audience complain that existing public policy fails to place technology in any sort of realistic context. Although Lane and leaders of other community organizations have publicly stressed the need for a comprehensive digital divide policy, one that addresses more than just a lack of hardware in poor neighborhoods, no such policy currently exists.
“NET 2000 is a good first step, but it shows a lack of creative thinking,” says Lane. “D.C. still doesn’t have a clear sense of policy when it comes to technology. But what’s going on now is just inviting business in and hoping for some trickle-down effect. In order for technology to permeate, communities need to desire it.”
For instance, NET 2000 does not offer incentives that reward companies for building remote work sites in low-income neighborhoods. Successfully implemented in cities such as Boston and New York, remote-site programs encourage companies to provide training and job opportunities outside of their regular offices and in poorer communities.
That’s just one hypothetical solution that some members of today’s panel believe could help D.C. spread the tech wealth a little. If there’s something that’s really disappointed folks at today’s conference, however, it’s the technology high school’s location. Interestingly, the McKinley project represents both a promise kept and a promise broken on the part of Mayor Williams. During his campaign, Williams vowed to dedicate a technology high school before he left office—only he initially pledged that an east-of-the-river building would house the new school. Ultimately, the mayor says, he decided that the McKinley site was a better choice because of its proximity to the NoMa corridor.
“Putting that school west of the river was a lost opportunity,” says one of this afternoon’s panelists, Vince Gray, who formerly headed the D.C. Department of Human Services and is now the executive director of Covenant House Washington, a nonprofit group that works with homeless and at-risk youth in Southeast. “That sent a clear message about where the city’s priorities stood in terms of the tech community vs. communities east of the river.”
Had the D.C. technology high school been awarded to Southeast, it would have turned Ballou Senior High School into the crown jewel that McKinley is to become. Instead, Ballou will receive $5 million from the city to play a supporting role: Next fall, Ballou will unveil a broad-based liberal-arts curriculum with a heavy technology emphasis. But it won’t be the kind of hot community hub that McKinley is intended to be.
And so for Gray, the McKinley story epitomizes a lesson about technology and politics: They both carry the potential for false promises.
“Good politics is to show quick and immediate impact, but good politics sometimes flies in the face of good policies,” says Gray. “If you just create pools of wealth here and there with technology, then technology becomes not the intended tool for progress, but an instrument for perpetuating failure.” CP