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El Paso’s Virtual Village: Your Pathway to Success
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Innovation SummaryThe Virtual Village is a community-wide workforce training and technological infrastructure improvement initiative organized and led by the El Paso Public Library. It provides free computer training from basic to advanced skills and computer based training and support for job skills improvement, continuing education, small business development and personal growth.
El Paso, TX is situated on the borders of Texas and Mexico and is separated by only the Rio Grande from its sister-city of Ciudad Juarez, Mexico. Because of escalating violence there, El Paso has seen a large influx of immigrants from Ciudad Juarez as well as other parts of Mexico. El Paso has traditionally had a population with relatively low levels of formal education and an English literacy rate well below the national average. According to CLRsearch.com,fewer than 25% of adults in El Paso have completed their high school education and only 13% have a college bachelor’s degree. Consequently, many of its citizens have struggled to develop job skills marketable to higher income employers leading to an estimated per capita income of just $16,864(US Census Bureau). Adding to these challenges is a persisting “digital divide” where many of our region’s citizens do not have adequate broadband access at home. A 2009 Digital El Paso survey showed that only 35% of households had high-speed access to the Internet, compared to 61.7% nationwide (Texas Borderlands: Frontier of the Future, University of Texas – El Paso, February 2009). These citizens often sought out computer resources at public libraries and other community organizations that offer those services but they didn’t always find what they needed. Partners in the Virtual Village project provided only 912 computers at 43 locations to serve a population of 742,062 people. This lack of technology infrastructure resulted in long waits for users to access the computer resources they needed to improve their lives. In addition, many of the computers at these existing centers were too outdated to run current software or to support reliable, high-speed connections to the Internet.
The Virtual Village project leveraged existing community partnerships involving non-profit organizations, educational institutions, community-based organizations and civic and business leaders – uniting their resources and energy to create a training and infrastructure improvement program. The partners, led by the Library, secured an $8.4 million grant from the Department of Commerce’ Broadband Technology and Opportunities Program (BTOP) to fund the project, plus a partner match of $4.6 million. The Virtual Village Project more than doubled the number of Public Computer Centers in the El Paso area bringing the total number from 43 to 91 with 1469 new or replacement computers blanketing low-income neighborhoods. The project also hired more than 30 professional technology trainers and mentors to provide direct training to citizens. In order to reach outlying areas, the El Paso Public Library operates a new mobile technology vehicle equipped with 11 workstations, 1 teaching station and mobile Internet access that operates in areas of El Paso, County with little or no access to technology. The project assists urban and rural community residents, including persons with disabilities, to enter the Pathway to Success model at any of its points of emphasis listed below and helps them access the resources they need to succeed. • Literacy/Basic Skills--Residents attend free classes in Computer and Internet basics to gain the necessary skill sets to enter the workforce or expand their marketable job skills. Classes are also offered in English-as-a-Second- Language, GED preparation, and Citizenship. • Employment Skills--Public Computer Centers are heavily used for on-line career counseling and testing, on-line job searches, to complete on-line job applications, write and post resumes, and gain interviewing skills. • Higher Education—Residents are encouraged to pursue their education with the help of grant partners. • Technological Advancement--Families will receive training and information skills to access essential life-skill websites and databases. • Small Business Resources--Small business owners will use the Public Computer Centers in the community to access business resources.
As of 03/31/12, the Virtual Village project has cumulatively upgraded 714 workstations and installed 755 new workstations into 89 Public Computer Centers (PCCs - 28 upgraded plus 61 new). Additionally, training classes were instituted on a standardized continuous class schedule across all 12 Library branches as well as PCC sites. Demand for classes, especially computer basics, continues to be strong as are literacy related classes offered as part of Virtual Village program. The Virtual Village recently acquired a language learning platform - LiveMocha - that provides self-paced language learning training through the Library’s Website to patrons and students. This supports the Employment Skills level of the Virtual Village Pathway to Success learning Pyramid. The mobile classroom Techmobile continues to be the “show stopper” for the Virtual Village wherever it goes in the region. The Techmobile is always booked to make stops at community gathering places – schools; churches; assisted living facilities- for adult computer basics classes. Two more PCCs will open in early Q2 of 2012 for a total of 91, the BTOP grant’s promised goal. Cumulatively since March of 2011 the project has exceeded its goals by having trained 34,040 participants and delivered 84,390 training hours. Average users per week are now at 48,238. The table below shows the culumaltive activities of the project and positive variance from the expected Federal goals as of 03/31/12. Baseline Cumulative Workstations installed Plan Actual Variance 1386 1469 +83 Average users per week 85262 89715 +4453 Number of those trained 19505 34040 +14535 Number of training hours 20229 84390 +64161