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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 Megan LindowCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / June 30, 2004



KHAYELITSHA, SOUTH AFRICA

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

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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.

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.

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