A walk on the digital side

A technology success story lifts a poor school near Cape Town - thanks to a connection between a vice-principal in S. Africa and a teacher in Chicago

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

Every time George Solomons walks into the computer lab at Esangweni Senior Secondary School, he wears a smile.

Inside the clean but spartan room, 34 humming machines are set up in rows on top of wooden tables. All around him, students dressed in neat uniforms are busily writing papers, surfing the Web, and composing e-mails.

Computers have provided a lifeline to this poor township school, Mr. Solomons says.

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The soft-spoken, youthful-looking deputy vice principal, whose spectacles and goatee make him look a bit like Malcolm X, is quick to admit that he is no computer expert. "Everything I know about computers is because of the people I've come into contact with," he says.

Even so, Solomons has managed to do what almost no other school in the area has done. He has established what is widely regarded as one of the most successful computer labs to be found in a township school anywhere in South Africa.

The digital divide - that invisible barrier separating those who have access to technology from those who do not - is particularly entrenched in South Africa, a country marked by huge inequalities between the rich and the poor. While wealthy schools enjoy computing facilities that are every bit as advanced as their counterparts in America, such technology is beyond the reach of most of the country's poor schools.

Furthermore, efforts to provide impoverished schools with computer access are often unsustainable, says Philipp Schmidt, program manager at Bridges.org, an organization based in Cape Town and Washington, D.C., which studies these issues. It is largely Solomons's persistence and dedication to his students that has allowed the lab at Esangweni to flourish while others fail, he says.

"George puts the students first," Mr. Schmidt says. "He's made it out of the townships that he's working in now, and he's helping the kids to make that same step."

Solomons encountered numerous setbacks, including donated computers that didn't work and exorbitant fees to fix them. But a cyberrelationship between Solomons and a fellow high school teacher on a different continent kept him going.

The African-American Council on Foreign Relations in Chicago - one of the many groups Solomons contacted as potential donors - put him in touch with Andrew Gomez, a teacher at the Zion- Benton Township High School near Chicago. In 2001, the organization paid the way for Solomons to come to Chicago and meet Mr. Gomez in person.

During his visit, Solomons was amazed by the resources at Zion-Benton. With nearly 1,000 computers in eight different labs, students had specialized programs and research tools at their disposal that Esangweni students could only dream of, he realized.

"These kids actually went through this computer-aided design module and built and sold a house," Solomons says. "Housing is a big problem here, so if we can do that in South Africa, it is really going to make a difference to the lives of people within the townships."

After his Chicago trip, Solomons was no longer alone when it came to dreaming big dreams for his school. Staff at Zion-Benton came on board and developed a powerful partnership with the South African school, opening up a world of new opportunity. First, they raised money to bring two Esangweni students to their school on a year-long exchange program. Through their contacts, they have since lined up scholarships to US colleges and universities for other Esangweni graduates.

In 2002, a group of teachers from Zion-Benton visited Esangweni, bringing with them 60 computers - the leftovers from an upgrade of their own labs - and helped to set up what is now Esangweni's famed computer lab.

Visiting South Africa, Gomez says that he was impressed by Solomons's dedication, but dismayed by the stark contrasts between Esangweni and a wealthier school he visited in suburban Cape Town. That is what convinced him to raise money to ship his school's old computers to South Africa.

"I realized that the dedicated students of Esangweni would be battling in the same college classroom for a grade against those students of Herzilia, and when asked to perform a technological skill, it was no question who would win," he says.

The more technology advances, some experts argue, the further those without access to it will be left behind. But Solomons says that once his students pick up the basics, they amaze him with what they are able to teach themselves.

"If you give kids an opportunity, they'll make the most of it," he says. "I'm convinced that the next Bill Gates is going to come from Africa, as opposed to the US."

To 13-year-old Mxolisi Kene and his friends, computers have become a way of life. Mxolisi spends his lunch hour, and as much time as he can after school, in the Esangweni computer lab, surfing the Net and troubleshooting on the school network. When the school has computer problems, Solomons says, it is often the students who fix them.

Even on weekends, Solomons brings Mxolisi and other students to join a group of volunteers to help needy clients at local computer labs. Setting up new computer labs is also easy and fun, Mxolisi insists.

That's why on one recent weekend Mxolisi and his friends were busy reconfiguring hard drives and measuring out lengths of network cables at the Eindhoven Primary School. While volunteers carried newly configured machines into a classroom that was hastily cleared out to accommodate the new lab, Mxolisi gave teacher Danzil Sauls a quick lesson in computing.

For Mr. Sauls and his fellow teachers at Eindhoven, the occasion was nothing short of momentous. The new lab will provide his students with their first computer access. "Most of my colleagues are not computer literate, and I am only partially computer literate," he explains. "We need computers so we can empower ourselves."

Mxolisi says he sees computers as a ticket to a better life. Since he knows a lot about them himself, he says, it feels good to share his knowledge with others, too.

"I can just imagine on Monday morning, when the kids arrive, how excited they will be," Sauls adds. "They've been poking their heads into this classroom all week long."

One of the groups Solomons contacted as potential donors put him in touch with Andrew Gomez, a teacher at the Zion-Benton Township High School near Chicago. In 2001, the organization paid the way for Solomons to come to Chicago and meet Mr. Gomez in person.

During his visit, Solomons was amazed by the resources at Zion-Benton. With nearly 1,000 computers in eight different labs, students had specialized programs and research tools at their disposal that Esangweni students could only dream of, he realized.

"These kids actually went through this computer-aided design module and built and sold a house," Solomons says. "Housing is a big problem here, so if we can do that in South Africa, it is really going to make a difference to the lives of people within the townships."

After his Chicago trip, Solomons was no longer alone when it came to dreaming big dreams for his school. Staff at Zion-Benton came on board and developed a powerful partnership with the South African school, opening up a world of new opportunity. First, they raised money to bring two Esangweni students to their school on a year-long exchange program. Through their contacts, they have since lined up scholarships to US colleges and universities for other Esangweni graduates.

Computers travel abroad

In 2002, a group of teachers from Zion-Benton visited Esangweni, bringing with them 60 computers - the leftovers from an upgrade of their own labs - and helped to set up what is now Esangweni's famed computer lab.

Visiting South Africa, Gomez says that he was impressed by Solomons's dedication, but dismayed by the stark contrasts between Esangweni and a wealthier school he visited in suburban Cape Town. That is what convinced him to raise money to ship his school's old computers to South Africa.

"I realized that the dedicated students of Esangweni would be battling in the same college classroom for a grade against those students of Herzilia, and when asked to perform a technological skill, it was no question who would win," he says.

The more technology advances, some experts argue, the further those without access to it will be left behind. But Solomons says that once his students pick up the basics, they amaze him with what they are able to teach themselves.

"If you give kids an opportunity, they'll make the most of it," he says. "I'm convinced that the next Bill Gates is going to come from Africa, as opposed to the US."

To 13-year-old Mxolisi Kene and his friends, computers have become a way of life. Mxolisi spends his lunch hour, and as much time as he can after school, in the Esangweni computer lab, surfing the Net and troubleshooting on the school network. When the school has computer problems, Solomons says, it is often the students who fix them.

Students reconfigure hard drives on weekends

Even on weekends, Solomons often brings Mxolisi and other students to join a group of volunteers to help needy clients at local computer labs. Setting up new computer labs is also easy and fun, Mxolisi insists.

That's why one recent weekend Mxolisi and his friends were busy reconfiguring hard drives and measuring out lengths of network cables at the Eindhoven Primary School. While volunteers carried newly configured machines into a classroom that was hastily cleared out to accommodate the new lab, Mxolisi gave teacher Danzil Sauls a quick lesson in computing.

For Mr. Sauls and his fellow teachers at Eindhoven, the occasion was nothing short of momentous. The new lab will provide his students with their first computer access. "Most of my colleagues are not computer literate, and I am only partially computer literate," he explains. "We need computers so we can empower ourselves."

Mxolisi says he sees computers as a ticket to a better life. Since he knows a lot about them himself, he says, it feels good to share his knowledge with others, too.

"I can just imagine on Monday morning, when the kids arrive, how excited they will be," Sauls adds. "They've been poking their heads into this classroom all week long."

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