Without functional computers, it’s been tough for Rochester’s Freedom School to provide literacy, tutoring and life skills assistance to the 100 youth ages 5 – 18 utilizing its North Goodman Street center each week.
However, computer labs and classrooms at the Freedom School recently got an extreme makeover – a technology makeover. Thanks to a new partnership forged with Keuka College, some 55 miles to the south, students in the inner-city school program received 13 new or refurbished machines, and some of the technical support they need to succeed. When summer programs begin July 11, Freedom School students will get their first opportunities to begin putting the “new-to-them” machines to use.
Re-born in 1993 from a 60s-era Children’s Defense Fund project, Freedom Schools nationwide provide summer and after-school programming to boost literacy and student motivation to read, foster positive attitudes toward learning, and connect the needs of children and families to resources in their own communities. Each Freedom School has a five-fold focus: academic enrichment, leadership development through mentoring, nutritional and mental health, social action and civic engagement, and parent and family involvement. Rochester’s Freedom School opened in 2003 and is part of the city’s North East Development Project. It is the only Freedom School in central or upstate New York.
“They are very much in need in need of equipment and expertise,” said Martha French, associate professor of education at Keuka College and a doctoral student at the University of Rochester’s Warner School of Education. In a doctoral class last fall, French and classmates Nicole Fingland and Lisa Barton had to develop a project that met literacy learning needs and provided social justice. Because their professor, Joanne Larson, knew of the Freedom School, French and her classmates made a visit to see what needs the center might have. What they saw compelled them.
“Their equipment was donated, used to begin with, and I’m not sure if what they have is even worth investing in trying to fix it,” French said, noting the Freedom School can’t afford costly repairs anyway.
Describing some computers so outdated they still had “floppy” drives, Freedom School Site Coordinator Brittany Calvin said only two machines were truly up-to-date and able to get Internet access. Students need them to write papers, do research, learn keyboarding skills, and utilize simple software for tutoring help, Calvin said. Some of the curriculum is Web-based and requires Internet access, too.
“I’m not tech-savvy, so I don’t know [specifics] but the kids would tell us ‘No, they don’t work at all,’” Calvin said.
French said the non-profit also lacks trained tech staff to identify what’s wrong with a malfunctioning machine, much less fix it. That means some small-scale issues can cripple a computer, taking it out of commission for a classroom.
The doctoral class trio contacted four Rochester-area colleges or universities and even Kodak about donating used equipment, but every institution except Keuka said no, primarily due to policies regulating disposal of equipment, French said.
Before visiting the Freedom School with French, Director of Information Technology Services Tim Pierson pledged Keuka’s support, estimating the College would donate between 15 – 20 refurbished computers over the course of the year. However, after the two met with Calvin in January to begin working out logistics, Pierson decided to take it a step further.
He contacted several of Keuka’s equipment vendors to see if they would donate new computers and two Smart Boards, a now-common classroom technology that marries the write-and-erase interaction of a whiteboard with the display features of a computer. The College’s regional computer vendor, based in Albany, agreed to donate two netbooks. Another vendor, Collegiate Services out of Atlanta, Ga., donated $1,000 to the Albany distributor to purchase three more fully-loaded netbooks, Pierson said.
Keuka supplied eight refurbished desktop machines in addition to the new equipment to bring the Freedom School’s total to 13 “new to them” computers. Last month, four Keuka IT staffers installed the desktops and netbooks and repaired the existing wireless networking setup at the Freedom School. Pierson said he was hopeful a local utility company may hear about the project and choose to donate free high-speed Internet service to the Freedom School, to save the non-profit another operational cost.
Pierson said he envisioned Keuka’s initial donation of equipment and tech support as just the beginning of a long-term partnership. He recruited members of his campus tech staff team to volunteer one morning a month in Rochester to assist the Freedom School in trouble-shooting any computer issues that may crop up. Further, the monthly visits may include workshops on operating computer hardware and software so that the oldest Freedom School students can learn to trouble-shoot simple computer problems on their own and acquire basic computer tech skills.
“We’re really excited!” Calvin exclaimed, adding that these opportunities can inspire students and help them identify with the hard work and dedication that goes into college studies.
Keuka may eventually consider hosting Freedom School students on campus for computer tech training, Pierson suggested.
“If that could work out as an experiential activity for their students, that would be wonderful,” French said, referring to Keuka’s reputation as the national leader for experiential, hands-on learning. “That’s an excellent educational value for their students, in terms of possible long-term work in the tech field.”
In return, Calvin said Freedom School leaders would like to see what their students could do for the college.
“Could they do projects? Research? Community development?” Calvin asked.
No matter how the new partnership takes shape, the two entities are looking forward to teaming up.
“This is more of an adoption than a one-time donation,” said Pierson, who was even asked to serve as a guest reader for Freedom School students. “We’re not going to drop it off and walk away.”