Black history gives depth to high-tech lessons

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They're not a local chapter of young Republicans. Or even the chess club. But a group of middle- and high school kids meeting twice weekly abides by a strict dress code: shirt and tie for boys, skirt or nice pants for girls. No jeans.

It's all part of an after-school program that fuses frequently divergent forces: the ivory tower and urban community service.

Last week, 30 students were the first to graduate from the Martin Luther King Jr. After-School Program in Boston's Dorchester neighborhood. The result of a partnership between Harvard University and the Ella J. Baker House, run by the local Azusa Christian community, the program gives children from some of the city's poorest, largely minority areas access to a computer, the Internet - and African-American history. Think Microsoft PowerPoint meets Reconstruction.

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If the program maintains its popularity - there's currently a waiting list for middle-school boys - it could become a new model for community-service efforts to keep kids safe and engaged, a key element in President Bush's plan to reform education. "We definitely want it to be a national program ... one in every city," says Henry Louis Gates Jr., director of the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for Afro-American Research at Harvard, which founded the program.

The students range from sixth- to 12th-graders, seasoned hackers to computer novices. Some are overachievers; a few are on probation.

For Xavier Holland, an earnest seventh-grader who's already designed several websites for friends, the program is primarily a chance to delve into subjects only skimmed in school. "I learned a lot about [my] African-American background," he says, adding, "In school we didn't learn so much about it."

For those with little computer experience, it's also an opportunity to overcome the oft-reported digital divide between African-Americans and whites.

Cultural history and information technology are not exactly traditional syllabus bedfellows. But tradition is not what Mr. Gates had in mind. "The only way to confront the [digital] gap is to be creative," he says.

Gates landed on the idea for the program in 1999, when he and a fellow Harvard professor were preparing to launch Encarta Africana, a compendium of African-American cultural research. "We were confident that we had a really great product.... But I was worried that it would sit on the shelf."

Gates's solution - an after-school program with lesson plans based on the new Encarta - answered another dilemma: how to place young African-Americans among the technologically savvy. "It's much easier to get people to respond to computers if there's some content they care about," says Gates. On the Encarta website, students can also set up e-mail accounts.

The strategy has proven especially successful among students who are in correctional facilities run by the Department of Youth Services. Marc Germain, project director for the pilot program at the Baker House (a nonresidential community center) says his biggest reward was watching the change in one teenage boy from DYS. "This kid was 110 percent engaged," Mr. Germain says.

The Baker House dress code and code of conduct, including no swearing, are part of the program's strengths. "It's clear that those have a very positive effect on kids," says Karen Dalton, assistant director at the Du Bois Institute.

But if the program expands, replicating instructors like Germain and the intimate environment of the Baker House won't be easy, Ms. Dalton admits. Still, there's reason to try. "It's been an extraordinary collaboration. We feel we've accomplished something" she says. "That always makes you want to do more."

E-mail farahs@csps.com.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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