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Telecommunity Centers Offer Classes

July 12, 1998

KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP) _ Farah Awan, a student, was afraid of computers when she first visited the telecommunity center.

Now, she’s a computer tutor and listens to music from her native Pakistan over the Internet.

Richard West, a retiree, learned how spreadsheet programs can help him manage his investments. And Gregory Cesnaro comes to e-mail, fax and stay abreast on developments in the free-lance video production market.

Telecommunity center?

A mixture of classroom and office, seven centers in Missouri offer instruction on such topics as computer literacy, office software and the Internet, for older and younger adults alike. And the classes are free.

Four of the centers are in Kansas City, and one each in Fayette, St. Louis and Poplar Bluff.

Southwestern Bell, the main sponsor, began the centers in 1996 as a trial project in 1996, scheduled to end this year. The company is studying what should happen afterward, said Trent Frager, Southwestern Bell spokesman.

However, he said, ``We have every intention to continue our involvement.″

The idea of the centers was born after Southwestern Bell conducted a study that looked at the top needs of education, and how the company could target its philanthropy better, said Robert Trottman, executive director for the center at Maple Woods Metropolitan Community College in Kansas City.

The study, which included interviews with more than 1,000 people nationwide, showed that many people lacked access to new technology, they didn’t understand what it was or how it could be used, and they were afraid of it, Trottman said.

``At the same time, it’s very clear that people need to be able to deal with technology in their everyday lives,″ he said. ``We’re dealing with technology, whether you like it or not.″

Southwestern Bell at first included the centers in a 1994 agreement with the Missouri Public Services Commission. The agreement, later thrown out by a judge, came after the commission had ruled that Southwestern Bell made too much money, said Penny Baker, commission deputy general counsel.

But the idea for the centers preceded that agreement, and Southwestern Bell followed through on the centers despite the agreement being declared void, Frager said.

Southwestern Bell invested $14 million in the centers. Six are based at colleges. Each college paid to make room for the centers. Other sponsors provided discounted or free equipment. More than 2,700 courses have been offered since the centers began operating. More than 27,000 people have become center members.

Kansas City’s Metropolitan Community Colleges have invested $2 million in the centers, said Don Doucette, vice chancellor for education and technology at the schools.

``It has brought people to campus, taught us about the new technologies, created larger networks,″ he said. ``We’re delighted.″

Though the trial period concludes at the end of the year, Doucette said he’s not worried about the future.

``The worst-case scenario is perfectly acceptable to us,″ he said. That would be that Southwestern Bell walks away from the centers at the end of the year. ``All of the technology and all of the facilities are ours to keep.″

The schools would pick up costs for running the centers, Doucette said. But the public wouldn’t be able to study at the centers free of charge.

``We would provide some access at free or low cost,″ he said. ``We would also look at charging for services to raise revenues.″

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