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Tornillo ISD educators work to bridge digital divide in the classroom

EL PASO, Texas (KVIA) -- There is no denying that technology plays a huge role in our lives now, but it also will loom large over future jobs for which our students need to be prepared.

ABC-7 went to Tornillo, Texas, home of one of the smallest and most rural districts in El Paso County, to see how they're working to bridge the digital divide.

For perspective, the whole town of Tornillo has a population that rivals that of El Paso High School's student body.

The rural farming community 40 miles east of the City of El Paso is young. Half of the town's residents are enrolled in the Tornillo Independent School District, with 730 students attending school at one of its four campuses.

Superintendent Rosy Vega-Barrio graduated from Tornillo High School, as did the high school's Business-Ed and Computer Science teacher, Jose Luis Silva-Smith.

"What was offered for us was home economics or agriculture," Vega-Barrio said. "We no longer have those types of classes. Sign of the times."

Silva-Smith graduated in 1995 and just completed his 26th year as an educator at Tornillo High.

"We used to carry our own typewriters to school," he said. "And I think we had one classroom computer when I started (working) with the district."

Both said they are striving to provide an education that prepares the graduating seniors for a world that needs to fill technology jobs.

"Computer science is taking over," Silva-Smith said. "We've been able to offer computer science and the kids have the opportunity to at least get a taste of what that involves, and how it's being used in every aspect of the different industries, including agriculture.

"In my opinion, computer skills are just essential skills. It's just like reading and math," he added.

But Tornillo, with its few roads and quiet, green farmland stretching for miles, needs the technological infrastructure to support 21st century learning -- not just in the schools, but in the students' homes and the community in general.

"We know that if there's a strong connection in the classroom and it does not transfer into the homes or into the community, then there's definitely a divide," Vega-Barrio said.

The digital divide is real.

"Sometimes the students come the next day and they tell you that they struggle completing some of the assignments, or the internet connectivity they had was weak and they lost their work in the middle of their assignment," said Silva-Smith, offering an example of what he's witnessed over his years of teaching.

Ironically, a boost in connectivity came during the covid pandemic when students were sent home.

Vega-Barrio worked with U.S. Congresswoman Veronica Escobar to secure $2.8 million in federal funding for a vast network of WiFi routers for the entire community, including the neighboring town of Fabens.

"We are small, but we are going to run our district as if we were a big district," Vega-Barrio said. "It's another layer of better connectivity for our families, because our kids deserve that."

Tornillo isn't just farmland. There are hundreds of kids who live here who want more.

"I want my kids to be able to go into a profession that is going to be able to give their families a better life," Rosy Vega-Barrio said. "After all, that is what a majority of my families came here for: so that our kids -- their kids -- could have a better future."

As Tornillo High School alumni, Vega-Barrio and Silva-Smith should know.

The computer science teacher smiled widely.

"It's been an exciting journey to see how we went from the electric typewriter to now, you know, laptops for every student," Silva-Smith said. "I'm just grateful for the opportunity to serve my community. It's been an amazing journey for me."

On June 16, Tornillo ISD is going to be attending the LatinX EdTech Summit, sponsored by ABC-7.

The summit will focus on how to create access to 21st century education in borderland classrooms.

Watch the special report "Digital Divide" on Thursday, June 15, on ABC-7 at 10.

Article Topic Follows: Education

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Stephanie Valle

Stephanie Valle co-anchors ABC-7 at 5, 6 and 10 weeknights.


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