The Gift That Keeps on Giving

The Gift That Keeps on Giving

Kent (Wash.) School District

This district proves that a digital divide effort can be stretched to accomplish so much more

They say when you look at fine sculpture, the work can be viewed from any angle without disappointment. The artist considers every side.

Kent School District in Washington has created its own version of sculptural perfection. Its computer give-away program is a multi-faceted effort that gleams from any angle and tackles more than one educational woe.

Since the program, called Bridging the Gap, started in 2002, more than 1,000 computers have been given to needy students. All those that applied and met criteria last school year received a computer. Although computers are going out at a slower pace this year, it's all part of a plan. The district hopes to tie large-scale giveaways with its computer refreshment cycle, once every three years.

Students aren't "just the recipients of technology. They are the messengers of the benefits of technology." -Don Hall, executive director, information technology

The main objective, of course, is to lessen the digital divide. Students who apply to get a free computer are chosen based on set criteria, and then put through a training regime. An adult is required to participate with the student.

But Bridging the Gap attacks other issues as well, such as citizenship and the isolation of high school education from the real world. Due to its design and the district's IT philosophy, the program has managed to alter curriculum, affect staff development and change attitudes about what kids can accomplish. It also hardly costs the district any money to run, because students, sometimes entire classes, do the work.

If Bridging the Gap sounds too good to be true, Superintendent Barbara Grohe will insist it is not. The project takes some faith, but dedicated staff can pull it off, she says. It is completely replicable if you have "a maniac with a mission," she jokes.

Bridging the Gap, Grohe says, serves as a great big thank you to the community. In 2000, voters approved a six-year, $18 million technology levy that is providing thousands of new computers for the district.

The influx of new computers is what led to the giveaway. Kent officials had to decide what to do with some 1,500 old computers that were still functional. It was unthinkable just to throw them out, especially since sending a computer to a landfill costs money. "We thought there had to be a better way," Grohe says.

If the computers were reconfigured, administrators decided they could give them to students who did not have a machine at home. Without efforts to untangle licensing issues and provide good software, however, Grohe says the giveaway would have been futile.

"When you give away computers to low-income families and no software, you have given them nothing," she notes.

Students: A now-tapped resource

Like in many communities, the digital divide exists in Kent. In a third of the schools, more than half the students qualify for free or reduced-priced lunch. Despite the need, before Bridging the Gap, paying a company to come in and reconfigure computers for charity was not an option.

Don Hall, the district's IT executive director, came to Kent the year of the levy. In his former Kentucky Department of Education position, Hall had developed a technology leadership program for students. He knew what a resource students could be. He and others decided to tap the district's Computer Application classes to reconfigure computers and do general work on the project.

"I don't believe students are just the recipients of technology, I think they are the messengers of the benefits of technology," Hall says.

Involving students in technology is what Hall calls a core value of the IT department. Actually, students are constantly tapped by the IT department to train teachers, manage small projects and serve on advisory committees.

Hall says he has unshakable confidence in students and, to date, a student has never seriously erred. However, he notes humbly, it could happen.

"The rewards of doing it so far outweigh the risks, that you just have to take the risk," he says.

Computer Application students are not the only students involved. Marketing classes designed the application process for getting a computer, various students serve on governance committees, a Networking/Multimedia class works in conjunction with the IT department, and student artwork decorates the training facility.

Also, English as a Second Language students have served as pivotal interpreters to the many families who speak another language.

In this era of tight-ship curriculum, the idea of using class time could have been received badly, but Grohe says teachers were not at all annoyed.

"They understood it was a really important step," the superintendent says. She notes that curriculum was reworked to include the project and all was tied back to state standards.

Teachers are well aware that the opportunity for high school students to work on real problems is a powerful motivator that's often missing in class, she adds.

And motivate it did.

Christopher Otey of Kentwood High School was a junior when he began working on a manual to go home with the computers.

He had real deadlines and was dealing with the IT department and administrative staff as well as his teachers. He ended up volunteering some 30 hours of his time.

"Students like real-life experiences," the senior notes.

Shan Janjua agrees. He was a sophomore last year and gave some 20 hours of his time to training and reconfiguring computers. A big moment for him was when he led a training class for the computer recipients and parents.

"I thought it was one of the best things the district has ever done," Janjua says of the project. "You don't get a lot of chances to help people."

Though Kent is an urban district in the Seattle metropolitan area, plenty of students are not exposed to lower socio-economic conditions, says Georgia Kinkade, the district's career and technical education specialist.

Through the project, many students worked with people who have less than them. Some learned to "have a little more compassion," she says.

Many students, Kinkade adds, were quite moved by the experience and truly enjoyed helping others. Karla Romo came to the country from Mexico three years ago. As a senior last year, she helped many teachers train Spanish-speaking families on the computers. But, she also led her own classes in English.

She estimates that she put in some 100 hours of her time into Bridging the Gap. Although Romo is now is college, she's still willing to help.

Support that sticks

The initial giveaway did more than just tap into student enthusiasm. It tapped into the community's as well, Grohe says. "We have a very, very supportive community, and this just cemented the relationship."

General enthusiasm was manifested by more than a thousand people who showed up for the district's annual technology showcase festival last school year. The festival allows the public to see how students are using technology in the classroom.

The public also wanted to add to the giveaway pile. Donations came from all sorts of businesses and families. Due to limited storage, the district could not take donations. It is, however, working with the Chamber of Commerce on a plan to remedy this.

In fact, the one cost of the project--the need to rent space for training classrooms and storage--was picked up by a local business.

CenterPoint Corporate Park is providing a free 10,000-square-foot space to serve as the storage and training facility. It actually remodeled the space to help it better meet educational needs.

In hindsight, Grohe says she realizes how smart it has been to involve the students to such depths. Now, when teachers go to certain technology staff development programs, they are each asked to bring two students. The schools even have student-run help desks for teachers.

Grohe says, "We realized we have an extensive untapped resource in our students."

Amy D'Orio is a contributing editor.


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