Bill Cirone, Santa Barbara Superintendent of Schools

In third grade, “Maria” was doing so poorly in school that she was at risk of dropping out. By the end of fourth grade, she was a top student who was working above her grade level.

What made the difference? Many factors, and many people, were essential to the transformation, but one event stood out: Maria received a computer even though her family couldn’t afford one. Her benefactor was Computers for Families, which hit a milestone this year when it provided its 10,000th free computer to a local low-income child.

In many cases, including Maria’s, those children immediately begin teaching their siblings and even their parents how to use the technology. Imagine the impact; imagine the number of lives that have been touched by those 10,000 computers.

This success is even more remarkable when you realize that every one of these computers was donated, refurbished, and distributed, at no cost to the families, through a partnership of businesses, nonprofit organizations, and schools.

The cornerstones of this partnership are the enlightened local business leaders who realize that a contribution to children is an investment in everyone’s future. They know that strong schools, strong communities, and a strong economy work hand in hand, with each one reinforcing the others.

Computers for Families is a program of the nonprofit Partners in Education that is administered by my office, with the goal of having a computer in the home of every student on the South Coast. A similar program, Computer Connections, operates in the North County through the cooperation of the Santa Maria Valley Chamber of Commerce, the Santa Maria Valley Industry Education Council, and the Santa Barbara County Education Office.

The CFF concept is simple. Businesses, government agencies, and individuals donate their outdated computers, and high school students in the Regional Occupational Program learn how to repair and upgrade them. Cox Communications provides discounted Internet access, and SBCEO employees provide computer training for the children, their parents, and even their teachers, as needed.

A computer is just a tool, so by itself it can’t make much difference. Maria had an inner drive to succeed, as well as dedicated teachers and caring parents who did all they could to support her. But as a tool, a computer is as essential for today’s students as pencils and paper were for earlier generations.

Educators and employers speak about the “digital divide” between students with access to technology and those with none. Computers for Families is dedicated to closing this gap, because it puts low-income children at a tremendous disadvantage as they try to keep up with classmates who have access at home to all the research tools and other resources they need. Until students cross that divide, they can’t achieve their full potential in school or careers — and that matters to all of us. Before we know it, today’s students will be the foundation of our community and our economy. Everyone’s future depends upon their preparation to become fully contributing members of society.

CFF is an inspiring example of thinking globally and acting locally. Without waiting for some grand government solution, local people put their heads together 16 years ago and created a win-win partnership.

Computers for Families has been a success because, at its heart, it isn’t about computers; it’s about families. It’s about improving lives and our community, one child at a time.