Program opens doors to a whole new world Caught in the Web: An Enoch Pratt Free Library electronic information project introduces at-risk youths to software programs and surfing the Internet.

March 11, 1996|By Miranda Barnes | Miranda Barnes,SUN STAFF

When the school day ends for Dominik Neal, he leaves the four walls of the classroom and enters the newest world of information, the Internet.

Dominik, 14, travels to the Central Enoch Pratt Free Library enters a room filled with computers designated for children only. For two hours he sits in front a 17-inch monitor with stereo speakers, doing everything from homework to watching his favorite music videos.

A freshman at Mergenthaler Vocational-Technical High School, Dominik is one of many youths who have graduated from the library's electronic information literacy project, A Whole New World. Launched in April, the project teaches at-risk youths between the ages of 9 and 14 to expand their horizons through technology.

In addition to giving each child an Internet address, which allows them to gain access to home pages and send and receive electronic mail, the project familiarizes them with a variety of computer software and databases.

"The public library sees part of its mission is to bring information to people, however it is packaged," says JoAnn G. Mondowney, executive assistant to the library director.

Started by a grant of $50,000 from the Morris Goldsecker Foundation, the project has placed IBM-compatible computers in four city libraries and specified them to be used by children only. A Whole New World is offered at the Broadway, Hollins-Payson, Walbrook branches and the Central Enoch Pratt Free Library. At the start of a required eight sessions, students receive accounts and passwords. They then learn to gain access to home pages on the World Wide Web and to chat with other youths on the Maryland Education Technology Network (METNET), in which nearly 40,000 children have accounts.

Greg Cundiff, a library volunteer and A Whole New World tutor, says teaching students to use e-mail to its fullest is one of the hardest parts of the project.

"To show kids we have a voice, that's really hard," Mr. Cundiff says. "To get kids to write letters to a congressman or the presidentwhen they don't think they're going to get a response. To tell them, if you use this, you have a voice you didn't think you had" is the most difficult.

Ask Dominik if he believes in the power of e-mail, and he just shrugs and tells how he sent e-mail to MTV to inform the network its home page takes too long to load on to his computer. MTV has e-mailed him back, promising to try to speed the process.

Since Dominik's initial exposure to the Internet, he has become somewhat of an expert. When Eunice Harper, coordinator of the project's central location, tries to sign on to the library's on-line service and fails, Dominik casually leans over to help.

"You do that. There," Dominik says as he refocuses his attention on the colorful MTV home page slowly filling his monitor.

Dominik has spent nearly 10 hours a week on-line since starting the program.

"He's very adventurous. He knows as much as any tutor," Ms. Harper says.

Mr. Cundiff stresses that while the students do reach a point where they can load almost anything on the computers, they are never left unsupervised.

But when it comes to information that can be a threat to children, Ms. Mondowney says, "You can find more in print than on the Internet."

Students use the state's computer library network SAILOR to explore on-line catalogs and public information. To search the World Wide Web, Lynx, a text-only browser, and Netscape Navigator, which includes sound and graphics, are used.

Though Dominik has cable television at home, he continues to watch on the library's computer. He acknowledges that A Whole New World piqued his interest in the library, where he recently became a student helper to fulfill his school's community service requirement.

Tiona Doughty, 14, a freshman at Milford Mill High School, also completed her eight sessions in December. While her on-line experience did not boost her interest in the Internet, it did increase her excitement about the library.

"After I came here on Saturdays [for the sessions], I came almost everyday," Tiona says.

"You can access the entire library in this room, with very few exceptions," Ms. Harper says. "Once they go through the program they use the computers for homework."

The Pratt Library hopes to increase community awareness of information available online. But count is available through METNET for every student in the state, it will not be easy.

"The problem is [students] don't have the equipment to use it. The Internet access is the most expensive part," Ms. Mondowney says.

Meanwhile, Internet access is available to anyone at Pratt library branches. Next month, the library plans to start a program that will demonstrate the Internet to all visitors. "It's not just something to do, but something important that must be done," Ms. Mondowney says. "It's not so much the technology, it is the information."

Those interested in the A Whole New World project can contact Enoch Pratt Free Library at 396-5328 or contact the project's homepage at http: //epfl2.epflbalto.org/wnw.

Pub Date: 3/11/96

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