At the Poe Power Plant Learning Center in West Baltimore, the only sound that rivals the clicks of computer keyboards is the excited chatter of students relishing the neighborhood center designed to integrate technology into a low-income area.
Residents in The Terraces development, across from the learning center in the 200 block of Fremont Avenue, are charter members of Baltimore's first "electronic village."
It is one of 1,100 Neighborhood Network Centers developed in the past four years by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to reach across the digital gap between rich and poor. All townhouses at The Terraces are wired for high-speed Internet service and home computers, both of which are available free if residents take a two-week training class.
"We want this community here in Maryland to be a flagship for the nation," Harold Young, Maryland's HUD coordinator, said at an open house yesterday to celebrate National Neighborhood Networks Week.
"We're talking about giving our community members a running start," Young said. "We must connect ... children and seniors to technology."
The Learning Center offers computer training beyond basic skills with programs supported by HUD, the Housing Authority of Baltimore City, Cisco Systems (of San Jose, Calif.) and the National Organization of African-Americans in Housing Group.
One after-school program - with 30 children enrolled - lets elementary and high school students explore the Internet on the center's 20 computers. A six-week course in "office technology training" gives adults practice using software they might need in the workplace, as well as practice searching for jobs on the Web.
In addition, the learning center serves as a Cisco Networking Academy, where students learn to design, build and maintain computer networks. Used mostly by high school juniors and seniors, the students are taught to troubleshoot problems with computer hardware. The nine-month course opens the door to a variety of technology-related careers.
"They can walk out of this door and into a job that pays $40,000 or $45,000 a year to start," said Charles J. Baumgardner, CEO of the NOAH Group. "There are people getting jobs out of this, jobs you can raise a family on."
He said that 139 program graduates have found employment - with average pay about $8 per hour. Public housing residents have lined up for the program.
"You learn how to build and work with computers," said Buddy Pitts, 17, who has been enrolled in the Cisco training course for more than a month.
"We want to go ahead and work ... so we can do the best we can," added Edward Smith, 18.
Stansbury Lee, a paraplegic who is one of 100 students in the basic skills class, said learning to use a computer will make his life more productive.
"It enlightened me," he said. "I can do a lot more things at home."
Residents' enthusiasm coupled with adequate resources will help the community "breach the digital divide" between rich and poor, said John Wesley, deputy director of communications at HABC.