When U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan mentioned Dalinda Gonzalez-Alcantar’s mobile app at a conference in Washington, D.C., the Texas native cried.
Gonzalez-Alcantar, 31, was invited to attend Parenting Magazine’s 2012 Mom Congress as the founder and CEO of eJucomm, a company that builds mobile apps for school districts to foster communication between students, parents, teachers and school administration.
Born and raised in McAllen, Tex. — which is less than 15 miles from the U.S.-Mexico border — Gonzalez-Alcantar was a teacher for six years. She spent much of her time in special middle school classrooms devoted to helping at-risk students learn more advanced concepts.
Most of her students were Latino and came from low-income households. She found she had trouble communicating with parents and students outside the classroom about what was happening on-campus because they didn’t check the Internet at home.
“I think it’s really unfair that because they don’t have Internet they can’t communicate with schools,” Gonzalez-Alcantar told VOXXI in an interview.
Bridging the digital divide with mobile technology
According to a 2011 Pew Hispanic Center report, only 55 percent of Hispanics use the Internet at home, compared to 58 percent of African-Americans and 75 percent of whites. Native-born, English-dominant and younger Latinos are all more likely to use the Internet at home.
“A relatively high share of Hispanics use their cell phones in lieu of a home internet connection,” the report found. “These findings lend some support to the notion that mobile technologies may help to narrow the digital divide.”
Looking at the research, Gonzalez-Alcantar saw an opportunity to reach students and parents who were using their cell phones to connect to the Internet.
She decided to build a mobile app for Android and iPhone that could connect them to resources, such as teacher and principal emails, after-school activity lists, sports schedules and school policies.
A DIY approach to app building
But Gonzalez-Alcantar, a mother of two, was not an app developer. After looking for a volunteer to help her build the app and finding no one, she decided she would teach herself.
“I took a bunch of tutorials on YouTube in the middle of the night while my kids were asleep,” she said.
Over the course of eight months, Gonzalez-Alcantar spent about three to four hours a night and many of her holidays learning how to build her first app. She visited online computer science forums and reached out for help from David Book, a California-based developer who has published app-building guides.
The apps were an immediate success: within the first month, the McAllen High School app had been viewed 10 times more than the school’s website, Gonzalez-Alcantar said.
Gonzalez-Alcantar stopped teaching in September to focus on building her business and bringing her technology to more schools. So far she’s built apps for all the campuses within McAllen Independent School District, in addition to Pharr-San Juan-Alamo Independent School District in South Texas and Ernest Righetti High School in Santa Maria, Calif.
While she built the first few apps free of charge, Gonzalez-Alcantar now charges for her services. A school district pays her company a one-time fee to acquire the app, plus a yearly fee for tech support, maintenance and updates. Teachers and principals also have access to an easy-to-use control panel that lets them make quick changes to the app.
Gonzalez-Alcantar says the price varies depending on the size of the school district but notes it’s not hundreds of thousands of dollars. In the past, schools have used grant funding or federal dollars to pay for the app, or a local business has purchased the app for a school, then put advertising on the home screen.
“It’s an investment but it’s affordable,” she said.
Teaching Latino youth about the tech sector
Though her apps are currently in English, Gonzalez-Alcantar is working to make them easily readable in Spanish with Google Translate.
In addition to seeking funding for a small business grant, Gonzalez-Alcantar is now partnering with Encore, a software publisher, to teach Latino students from South Texas middle schools — many of whom would be the first in their families to go to college — about how to come up with a good idea and then develop an app.
She says not many young Latinos go into science or technology fields because they don’t know it’s an option for them. She hopes her example will inspire them.
“Anybody, if they really wanted to, can build technology,” she said. “It’s really the idea that sells.”