Raleigh, NC: Investing in Digital Education Through Youth Technology Program

Raleigh recognizes the value of digitally educated youth. As such, we began offering One Economy’s nationally renowned Digital Connectors program in 2010. The program provides technology and leadership training for young people, ages fourteen through twenty-one, an important age group for Raleigh as a national leader in high-tech innovation. The young people are from diverse backgrounds and neighborhoods throughout the City of Raleigh. Raleigh Digital Connectors are dedicated to improving their communities and themselves through technology and community service. The program allows young people to expand twenty-first-century technology skills, as well as develop professional life skills, participate in open data projects, explore workplace pathways, and serve their communities.

For nine months, the program meets twice a week during the academic school year. Each student commits to sixty hours of community service and receives 150 hours of classroom instruction. The curriculum is purposefully taught to develop multiple skill sets students will need to compete in the global digital economy. For example, the program teaches coding, but at the same time connects entrepreneurial and career development skill sets such as financial literacy, design thinking principles, and public speaking. We are committed to the idea that individuals should have access to technology to learn critical workforce skills and enhance their lives.

The Digital Connectors program provides four solutions for youth and families in under-served communities:

  1. Leadership Development—Develops students’ leadership and entrepreneurial skills. Students serve as lab assistants to adults in computer classes. At workshops and community events, they introduce speakers and make presentations. They also establish relationships with college student mentors enrolled in science, technology, engineering, math (STEM), and/or entrepreneurial majors.
  2. Family and Community Empowerment—Builds the capacity of families. Digital Connectors teach families, friends, and neighbors about computer basics and Internet safety. In addition, parents are invited to quarterly “Parent Cafes.” These provide opportunities for direct engagement with parents of Raleigh Digital Connectors. Discussions include ways to improve student experience, strengthen the Raleigh Digital Connectors parent network, encourage resource sharing, and promote community centered digital inclusion.
  3. Civic Engagement—Enhances community service. One of our program’s core values is civic engagement. In addition to completing the curriculum, youth are required to engage in sixty hours of community service. The service projects that we coordinate with our community partners expose the Digital Connectors to an array of social issues. Each project is a new opportunity to share the program with the community and to expand the students’ worldview. Our most significant service projects are those that are aligned with our digital literacy mission. These include resident trainings, computer refurbishing, and distributing refurbished computers to families in need and non-profit organizations. These projects are where the youth begin to make the link between service-learning and giving back.
  4. Twenty-First-Century Workforce Development—Trains Raleigh Digital Connectors to view technology as a conduit for success and a tool for community enhancement. The program curriculum consists of twelve core competencies:
      • leadership and diversity
      • personal development
      • workforce development
      • financial literacy
      • community mapping
      • digital literacy
    • coding
    • open data principles
    • civic journalism
    • environmentalism and sustainability
    • service and global engagement
    • teaching and facilitation.

Through the Digital Connectors program, Raleigh is equipping the future workforce with vital skill sets for any number of industries and preparing them for the twenty-first-century workplace.

Many business professionals and community leaders contribute to the program by speaking to the youth about career paths. Local university students mentor Digital Connectors on college preparation and community service. The program allows the City to provide high-quality, personalized educational support for under-served citizens to realize the benefits of information technology.

Participation in this interactive, challenging learning experience culminates in a formal graduation celebration. Graduates of the program receive $500, a laptop computer, and other incentives for participating. After students graduate from the program, they have the opportunity to continue serving the community as Digital Connectors alumni. They may become Raleigh Digital Ambassadors and continue their digital inclusion efforts in the community. Specifically, they promote and facilitate resident digital literacy trainings, participate in community service projects, become mentors to the upcoming program participants, and provide input to the advisory board.

We are now in the middle of our ninth program. The application process has become highly competitive. Many youth from around the City of Raleigh apply for the program, and only fifteen are selected. Based on the completed applications received, a group of candidates will be chosen and invited to a panel interview. The panel is composed of City program staff, board members, and external partners. The panel will select the finalists. The finalists and their parents are invited to an orientation two weeks before the program begins.

So how do we measure and sustain the program? Our projects goals include (1) increasing twenty-first-century technology skills, (2) creating technology portfolios, (3) encouraging professional/life skill development, and (4) inspiring STEM careers. These project goals will be measured through an evaluation plan that includes pre-, mid-, and post-program assessments. First, the pre-program evaluation will measure each youth’s academic skill level, technology access and use, perceived social awareness, community service self-efficacy, college plans, and interest in STEM careers. This survey provides our program staff with the information needed to shape the course curriculum around the group’s unique needs. Second, the mid-program assessment is conducted via focus groups. During these discussions, staff gathers detailed information on how the program is impacting the youth and whether or not adjustments are needed. Finally, the post-program assessment measures changes and increases since the program began based on the measure in the pre-program survey.

Our next phase is to examine the impact of the digital inclusion efforts provided through the City’s community broadband initiatives. A multiphase study will be dedicated to exploring the relationship between technology access and community empowerment, as well as provide a foundation for creating a replicable framework. The City of Raleigh wants to capitalize on the opportunity with our partnerships with AT&T and Google Fiber to measure the digital impact on our residents.

The City of Raleigh launched the Digital Connectors program in 2010 in the Information Technology (IT) department. After evaluation of this program in July 2016, the Manager’s Office; IT department; and Parks, Recreation, and Cultural Resources department (PRCR) decided to move the program to PRCR during the FY17 budget process. While IT remains a key stakeholder, the current and future program aligns with PRCR’s mission, vision, function, and structure. The digital inclusion team currently consists of one program director, two program managers, and three part-time staff, all of whom are Digital Connectors alumni. At the beginning, the program team consisted of one program director and one program manager. With program evolution and expansion of community broadband initiatives, the demand for another full-time staff person was needed. This transition provides opportunity for program planning at a multi-year level, managing staff, program research, budget management, community involvement, performance measure reporting, board interaction, and development of internal and external partnerships.

The City of Raleigh also sustains the program through strategic partnerships. Developing partnerships is a key guiding principle for the City of Raleigh. Raleigh can enhance its ability to provide innovative solutions for the community by collaborating with like-minded organizations. This guiding principle inspired us to create the Raleigh Connected Advisory Board. The board helps shape local programs, identify focus areas, and integrate relevant audiences with community technology initiatives. The advisory board members serve a two-year appointment and collaborate to (1) identify and promote areas of need related to comprehensive digital inclusion adoption; (2) provide educational and innovative support for internships, employment, and mentorship to the student participants; (3) raise funds to sustain the Digital Connectors and future youth programs; and (4) promote the value of digital literacy for workplace and economic development. By engaging volunteers from private industry, especially key stakeholders from the Raleigh Connected Advisory Board, the Digital Connectors program fosters community buy-in and develops a diversified portfolio of private investments to financially sustain the program. Raleigh has been successful in receiving funding from AT&T, Cisco Systems, Google Fiber, IBM, and Red Hat. The City absorbs the staff salaries, administrative, and facility/lab costs of the program. Partnership funding goes toward the student stipends, computers, student conference registrations, and resident digital literacy trainings. Raleigh aims to develop a sustainable program other communities can use for preparing youth to succeed in the evolving digital economy.

Since Raleigh Digital Connectors began in 2010, the results of the program have been inspiring. By the close of our eighth program in May 2016, 118 students have graduated. Collectively, participants have completed 6,724 hours of service, trained 2,801 residents, and refurbished 632 computers that were distributed to families in need. As we move forward with program innovation, we hope to build upon these successes. A future objective is to educate youth about the value and power of participating in local government. In turn, they provide value by assisting public servants in evaluating the effectiveness of our community broadband efforts. Through our initiatives, we hope to facilitate the creation of emerging leaders in the fields of public administration and information technology. Overall, Raleigh is building a twenty-first-century city using technology as a catalyst for sustainable economic development. We are obligated to prepare our youth to be on the competitive edge of the emerging information economy. It is not a choice; it is necessary. Through access, education, awareness, and information, the Digital Connectors are building a culture that values technology and embraces it to enhance lives.

For more information about the Raleigh Digital Connectors, see

Raleigh Digital Connectors webpage (video and program fact sheet)

Raleigh Connected Initiative webpage

Linda Graham Jones

About Linda Graham Jones

Linda Graham Jones is Digital Inclusion Program Director, City of Raleigh, NC. In addition to managing the Raleigh Digital Connectors program, Jones builds community collaborations with non-profits, businesses, and other organizations to expand youth and community technology programming needs. She holds a BS in business management with a concentration in marketing and a minor in communication studies from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro.

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