After-school program hopes to bridge the `digital divide'

Harvard academy teaches computers via African heritage

March 09, 2002|By Erika Niedowski | Erika Niedowski,SUN STAFF

A new Baltimore after-school program designed to make 4 million years of African history come alive through technology had its official debut yesterday, as part of an unprecedented partnership between the city and Harvard University.

The Martin Luther King Jr. After-School Academy at the Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church Outreach Center - the first of three such academies in the city - will serve 60 students in middle and high school.

The idea behind the program, which began last month, is twofold: Bridge the so-called "digital divide" for African-American youth, and have them learn about their heritage while doing it.

Baltimore is the country's second city to offer a King after-school program. Harvard's W.E.B. DuBois Institute started it last year at a youth outreach center in Boston's Dorchester neighborhood, where it's in its second year.

Locally, several nonprofit organizations sponsor the program, including Baltimore Rising, the faith-based youth mentoring initiative Mayor Martin O'Malley launched last year. The academy will operate from 4 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. Monday through Thursday, with an open lab on Saturdays.

Working from a newly equipped technology lab on the third floor of the Bethel outreach center in West Baltimore, students use Encarta Africana, a multivolume electronic encyclopedia that chronicles black history from 4 million B.C. to the present.

Conceived by Harvard Professors Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Kwame Anthony Appiah, the CD-ROM provides an extensive account of African and African-American history.

Among other things, it documents the civil rights movement, offers virtual tours of the Serengeti and showcases a timeline of African-American music including hip-hop.

A few of the lab's 15 computers were up and running as Gates, who leads Harvard's Afro-American studies department, and O'Malley visited yesterday.

One student was looking up information about the late reggae singer Bob Marley.

"Do they have any Bob Marley songs on here, Dr. Gates?" asked the mayor, who wanted to hear a rendition of "Redemption Song."

Nearby, Aretha Franklin's "Respect" started blaring from a computer speaker.

At another station, Phillip Johnson, 15, a Northwestern High School sophomore, was researching the life and music of Duke Ellington for a presentation he has been putting together.

"I like that we get to use the computers," said Phillip, who usually visits the lab on Tuesdays and Thursdays. "We get to look up music, artists, stuff like that. And you get to meet new people."

Before touring the lab, Gates said at a news conference that the King after-school program would provide children a safe and "communal" place to go after school where they can learn about their history and culture.

"With this program, we'll take our people not `back to the future' but `black to the future,' " he said.

Bill McIntyre, a teacher at the academy, said students - most of whom were referred through Baltimore Rising - attend sessions twice a week, with girls and boys in separate classes.

Children learn a range of computer skills, from spreadsheets to computer graphics to typing. The black history curriculum provides the foundation for most of the program's lessons.

One plus, McIntyre said, is having a computer for every student.

"Here it's a one-to-one [ratio]," he said. "You wouldn't have that at any school. They love it."

Partners in Bethel's after-school program include the Family League of Baltimore, which provided $87,000, and the Annie E. Casey Foundation, which provided $69,000. O'Malley spokesman Tony White said that the city received $85,000 in additional state and federal grants, and contributed $36,000 for the Encarta Africana software.

The city plans to use the software at as many as 100 other locations across Baltimore, including neighborhood and recreational centers, libraries and schools.

Two other sites also will offer King after-school programs, though funding has not been secured.

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