playing hard to address the digital divide

Steve Bergen ... ... December 2007

So I finally took the challenge from my 26 year old daughter who was in law school at the time! I had been working as CIO and tech director at some of the best Independent Schools in the country -- Concord Academy, Noble and Greenough and The Chapin School here in Manhattan -- and one day in 2005 my daughter said to me "hey Dad, when are you ever going to do something for the people in this world who really need you?"

I was flip in my answer to her and told her that I wasn't dead yet and of course still had to pay all those bills for her brother's college tuition. But her challenge gnawed at me over the next two years and greatly influenced the biggest decision of my professional career. I left Chapin this year, took a major cut in salary and started working at The Children's Storefront in Harlem, an Independent tuition-free preK through eighth grade school which was started in 1966 by Ned O'Gorman and is now run by Kathy Egmont. While The Children's Storefront may lack the riches and resources of Chapin, it makes up for it in its core values and sense of mission. We have even made it to the Food Network where chef-extraordinaire Emeril Lagasse has graced the school with his donations.

Never in my wildest imagination did I think that things would move along so quickly. But on a fateful day last month -- Tuesday, November 13th -- I met Michael Lewis. No, not the Michael M. Lewis author of Moneyball fame that most baseball fans know, the one who made the compelling argument for how the collective wisdom in a field such as baseball can become so ingrained that society and a given industry simply accept it as knowledge that cannot be challenged

The NYC Michael Lewis is a man who has been working for several years in Harlem (www.wirelessharlem.org) to address the digital divide along with partners Jonathan Evans and Kamal King by creating free wireless zones so that the boys and girls can more easily access the Internet, which is the greatest educational equalizer since the pencil.

I now refer to this revelation as Harlemball because I've realized in my short time at the school that in the 21 century perhaps it is time we approached the idea of making technology widely available to all of our residents in a new and different way. I thought of this term Harlemball after having met a local Harlem entrepreneur with the same name Michael Lewis, who is the founder of the Wireless Harlem Initiative, a New York based non-profit, dedicated to addressing the digital divide by creating free wireless zone so that the boys and girls can more easily access the Internet or what I believe is the greatest educational equalizer since the pencil.

When I arrived at The Children's Storefront, we had only 35 working computers, some of which were from 1999. Since September, we have been able to acquire one hundred more through generous donations of many people. But even with these machines, I know there's much more to do in order to make the school a place where technology doesn't just exist, but flourishes

Acquiring these old computers which other schools no longer wanted, helps to add the hardware that every school needs, but without access to the Internet, they are a bit like baseball bats without a field to play on. Students must do their research at school now on the Internet, print their pages out and using these printouts they go home to write a paper on a computer that is not connected to the Web.

Just how important is it for a student to have home access to the Internet in addition to the computer? Since we began to lend out two wireless and ten non-wireless laptops to our older students at The Children's Storefront, we have seen students being able get their papers done more promptly and with much greater depth of information. The joy and happiness on the children's faces by being able to have a working computer with Internet connection from home is priceless. We do require our students to work in the computer lab for an hour in order to earn this privilege but they line up everyday at exactly 4 pm for this opportunity.

To be able to type a paper that is due the next day or if they are one of the two lucky ones to be able to research information via the Internet for that paper is for them an educational gift that makes me feel privileged to be working at this school. We even had one second-grade student who went home and shocked his parents by logging in to his new online typing account. The parents saw him at the computer and thought he was hacking in to our school's network when all was doing was wanting to practice his typing online! As he grows up, the plethora of online educational resources will grow faster than he will. Once we clarified this for his parents, they too wanted to know more about what other educaitional online tools were there available for their child.

The major problem that exists is now one of morality. With a wireless computer, you need a wireless Internet Connection and very few families in Harlem have this available to them. One of our core values at The Children's Storefront is honesty, and stealing wireless connection from a neighbor is a dishonest practice.

The Children's Storefront is now starting a collaboration with The Wireless Harlem Initiative that aims to provide hundreds -- maybe even thousands -- of children in the area with both computers and Internet access by 2008. Lewis' vision solves the honesty problem. With moderate amounts of money, support and commitment, we can make his dream in Harlem come true. He has already created three hot spots in Harlem using a business model that incorporates area residents and local businesses.

It will take a village (of politicians, donors and supporters) to make this happen, but the end result will have a tremendous effect on the community. Despite my heavy involvement in technology for many years, I have never believed that technology is the answer and pride myself for once being part of a computer consulting firm that was both for and against the use of computers in education.

But I am stressed when I hear the statistics which indicate that of the developed nations the U.S. is one of the least connected countries in the world and that the cost of connecting to the Internet is still too expensive for many middle and low-income residents should be challenged and considered as flawed thinking.

Using technology to help children both in Harlem schools and homes access information is essential. One charter school administrator told me that "there is no quick fix, no one thing we do that makes us good, but rather there are 100 points of light, each one of which contributes to the progress of our children."

Technology may just be only one of those 100 points of light, but it is one that can truly "light" Harlem with affordable Internet access and thus will be making a huge difference in the lives of these children and ultimately be a model for the country and the world.

To quote Mr. Lewis, "Affordable computer purchase option for Harlem residents are needed to help close the digital divide and increase economic growth. Relevant educational computer training for residents and business owners are essential." Michael Lewis's vision for addressing the digital divide is without question the "technological Statue of Liberty of the 21st century."

At my family Thanksgiving dinner last month, I gave thanks to having a daughter who challenged me. I am hopeful that a year from now, I will be able to give thanks to the dozens of people who helped collaborate with The Children's Storefront and the Wireless Harlem Initiative to provide the boys and girls of Harlem with a technological playing field that lets them play ball. Yes, that's right, Harlemball, not Moneyball.

Steve Bergen ... 781-953-9699 ...
Executive Director, Tech International Charter School
address: 3120 Corlear Ave, Bronx, NY 10463

p.s. if you look at our website at ticharter.org you will read about our program called TI TakeAways which gives out free computers to families in the Bronx and great NYC