T.J. and Tevin Graise are fast becoming computer whizzes.
Using the family computer, the brothers scour the Internet for data and graphics that will make homework projects sparkle. T.J. has built Web pages and downloaded music. And their mother, Latonya Wyche, prepared spreadsheets for her job as an insurance specialist.
A few months ago, such computer proficiency was all but absent in the family's Howard County household. But after the brothers were identified by their school, Harper's Choice Middle, as lacking a home computer, they - along with 14 others families - were given a new one. They also received a printer and software.
The equipment came through Computers for Students, a program that plans to hook up 100 more families from five Howard schools before this school year is out. The initiative is a collaboration between the Bright Minds Foundation, a county schools foundation that addresses equity issues, and the Lazarus Foundation, a nonprofit computer refurbishing organization. As part of the program, the students and their parents attend a two-hour instruction course.
Leaders from the foundations say the project aims to close the "digital divide" - gaps in access to technology across the socioeconomic spectrum.
"Many of us take our home computers for granted, but for others in our community, they are still a luxury," said Doug Hostetler, chairman of Bright Minds. "We know that students today are academically disadvantaged if they don't have access to a computer."
Because the gap is narrower in Howard than in many other jurisdictions - the county leads Maryland in percentage of students with computer access at home - the organizers say they view virtual elimination of the gap as an attainable goal. At 88 percent, Howard also leads the state in percentage of students with home Internet access. Baltimore City ranks lowest at 43 percent.
But the gap in Howard creates a unique problem, Wyche said.
"Sometimes [teachers] give homework assignments assuming that [students] have a computer at home," she said. "Teachers just assume that all kids have computers at home. It embarrasses the children without computers."
While some school systems have attempted similar efforts - Talbot County gives all freshmen laptops to use throughout their high school careers - providing the means for home access for every student from elementary through high school is a tall order for cash-strapped jurisdictions. So many have turned to collaborations with outside organizations.
The Computers for Students program is just the latest example for Harper's Choice, said Principal C. Stephen Wallis. Since 2005, another effort, PCs 4 Kids, has provided computers for about 35 families from the Columbia school. The program requires students to maintain good grades and attendance and avoid disciplinary problems, Wallis said. Only one computer has been taken back.
Significant progress has been made in providing computers in Maryland classrooms. The student-computer ratio has improved from 16-to-1 in 1996 to 3.4-to-1 last year, state education officials say. But at home the gap persists. About 26 percent of Maryland public school students do not have home computer access, according to the state's most recent survey, conducted in 2007.
"Part of being successful with technology is having a high comfort level," said June Streckfus, executive director of the Maryland Business Roundtable for Education, a business coalition focused on school improvement.
"The more you work with it, the higher success level," said Streckfus, whose organization conducted the computer access survey before the state took over the task two years ago.
While Streckfus commends programs such as the one in Howard County, she stressed that computer access must start earlier.
"The kids who start behind stay behind," she said. "Our belief is that technology should be ubiquitous throughout the school career."
Wyche said her work schedule makes it difficult for her to take her children to the library to use computers. With the equipment from the school, her children can now use the computer in the comfort of the home.
"I've had other friends who got computers. It's been a good program for their kids," Wyche said. "I wish they could identify more kids with the need."
Since receiving the computer, Wyche's sons say they have seen improvement in their grades. T.J., a seventh-grader, used the computer to complete a project about Peru that included a timeline and map. The 12-year-old estimates the extra touches made the difference between a B and a B-minus.
Tevin, an eighth-grader, says the computer has helped him overcome one of his greatest shortcomings - penmanship.
"My handwriting is not the best," the 13-year-old said with a chuckle. "I have doctor's handwriting."
Shimea Mayfield, a seventh-grader at Harper's Choice, has seen a difference in her typing ability since her family received a computer in December.
"Now I can type without looking," she said.
The eldest of four girls, Shimea, 12, uses the computer and printer to find quizzes to give to her sisters when she plays "teacher" at home.
"I want to be a teacher when I grow up," she said. "I'll print stuff out from the Internet and give them things to do. I am so happy. I never had a computer before."