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Class Brings Girls Into The Computer World

In the computer lab at Kings Glen Elementary School, Alyssa Henriquez looked at the logo she created, which captured the essence of the Empower Girls computer class. Alongside the flowers she imported from the graphics file, "Sorry Dudes, Dudettes Only" went across the top in fancy lettering.

"I just thought of it," Alyssa said. "She taught us how to find that stuff. We learn a lot, and we can make friends too."

Francine Cilke's logo had a smiley face reiterating the same "girls only" concept. "Where Cool Things Happen" was the title of her logo.

"I thought of it myself," she said.

The logos were just one lesson the girls learned, along with a slide show and newsletter in the classroom of fourth- and fifth-grade girls on Tuesday afternoons. The curriculum of the 10-week sessions was the creation of Eileen Ellsworth, who designed the class to teach exclusively girls computer skills they would need in the future. Last year’s advanced-placement computer-science exam demographics in Fairfax County Public Schools (FCPS) alarmed Ellsworth to the point where she formulated a plan to attract more girls to the computer field.

"My primary goal is to develop a sense of comfort with computers," she said.

With a community action grant from the American Association of University Woman, Ellsworth created the "Empower Girls" program, promoting computer skills while making it fun at the same time.

"I was delighted when I got it," she said of the grant.

The advanced-placement computer exam was taken last year by 17 percent girls and 83 percent boys, and "boys currently outnumber girls 5-1 in AP Computer Science classes in Fairfax County," Ellsworth data showed. She started the program in the Springhill and Reston Teen Center and expanded it to several schools in the area. Now the after-school classes are taught at Kings Glen, Bren Mar Park, Belvedere and Clermont elementary schools.

"There are about 25-30 girls in each class, it depends on how many computers they have in each class. I have 13 schools that wanted a program, and enough money for four [classes]," she said.

Bernie Glaze, FCPS specialist for advanced academic programs, noticed the lower numbers of girls enrolled in computer courses. In 2000-01, girls made up 19 percent of enrollment in computer courses compared with 13 percent in 2002.

"It's certainly dramatically lower. There's been a big drop over the last two years," Glaze said.

ELLSWORTH IS CONSTANTLY seeking funding and balked at the idea of Fairfax County Public Schools incorporating it into a credited class.

"They just had a $63 million budget cut, they're not going to fund a new program," she said.

Ellsworth is a lawyer by trade and realized the necessity of computer skills from her job at a software company, where each employee was supposed to be computer savvy from the start.

"It always struck me how proficient every employee was supposed to be. I had to teach myself. Six years with the company opened my eyes to the importance of being comfortable with a wide variety of applications," she said.

In the process of designing class materials, she had a test subject available, her own 9-year-old daughter, Emma Weil, a fourth-grader at Waples Mill Elementary in Oakton.

"She's my guinea pig. Everything I try with the girls, I try it first with her," she said.

AT KINGS GLEN, Annette Lauber is the instructor. During the school day, she is a reading teacher at Camelot Elementary. She got involved with Empower Girls by word of mouth.

"Eileen approached the administration here, I heard about it. The girls can really follow it step by step. They wanted to go further" on the computers, she said.

At the other schools, two classes are taught by teachers at the school and the other is taught by a teacher from another school. There are 10 classes in the course, and one of them is teacher's choice. As it neared 4 p.m., Lauber helped the girls finish up the project for the day.

"We have a time they get to show what they've done. A lot of them wanted to go back and add things," she said.

Fourth-grader Jada Watson liked the projects, but liked the feeling of being older as well.

"It's kind of fun," she said. "It's like you're in fifth grade, too."

Karen Adams has a daughter, Elysse, in the fifth grade also at Kings Glen Elementary School. She'd noticed a flier about the class earlier, but her daughter was not too excited about it so she didn't sign up. The class needed more of a draw, Adams felt.

"There has to be some sort of draw, it may not be technology for technology's sake. Girls that age are more into what their friends are doing," she said.

Francine, 10, took advantage of the multi-aged aspect of the class as well and made a new friend.

"The fifth-graders don't know the fourth-graders, and I even met one fifth-grader I didn't know," she said.

Ellsworth is trying to secure locations and funding for Empower Girls programs in the spring. Currently identified schools include McNair Elementary with Cisco Systems volunteer instructors, Franconia Elementary with Calibre Systems, Inc. volunteer instructors, and a third yet to be identified.