Florida students give up their spring break to help bring this island school into the 21st century.
Andros Island, the largest of the Bahamas, is situated less than 100 miles off the Florida coast, but it is worlds apart from Gainesville’s Oak Hall School and the student volunteers who visit Central Andros High School every year.
“It’s not a very well-known place, and it’s not on anyone’s list to visit,” says Michael Martinez, Oak Hall’s director of technology. “For the most part, the people are very poor and very cut off.”
Martinez says that the island’s poverty rate leaves many of its 8,000 residents far behind those on the Bahamas’ tourist hubs, so much so that the children in some families have to share uniforms and hence alternate the days that they attend the school that serves grades seven through 12.
But Oak Hall’s art teacher Gary Bone did visit the island several years ago to study the work of native artists and ended up painting a large mural of his own on one of the school walls. Since then, Bone and his colleagues have been working with a much larger canvas.
“Gary came back and said, ‘Let’s get a group of students, do musical and arts projects, and build a computer lab,’ ” Martinez recalls. “The project kind of evolved from there, and it’s unbelievable how much it’s progressed.”
Over the past three years, contingents from Oak Hall, a private school, have made one-week trips during spring break to do everything from landscaping and painting to building basketball and volleyball courts.
“They really deal with the needs of the school,” observes Central Andros Principal Maxine Forbes. “Oak Hall and the team they bring down have been a blessing to us.”
Focus on IT
As part of its global education initiative, Oak Hall has pursued contact with schools in Haiti and Mali, but none has been as involved as the Andros Island project.
“This is the only place that’s an entirely different world but is close enough to send students,” says Martinez.
The most sustained effort at Central Andros High has centered on information technology, from building the computer lab, to networking the entire school and connecting it to the Internet, to importing the know-how to use the new additions effectively.
When Martinez and his student volunteers arrived in 2005, they found a building in which some floors were dirt and some doors were missing. There wasn’t a computer to be found. So they brought in 15 used Oak Hall computers as well as Microsoft Office software.
“We aimed to give the school what it needed for basic computing,” explains Martinez. “We didn’t want to get wrapped up in the latest and greatest.”
Oak Hall students set up most of the computers in the fledgling computer lab, as well as in five classrooms, and instructed teachers on using the Office applications, from Word to Excel. Scott Mansfield, now a freshman at the University of Florida, had to make sure the computers could operate with minimal glitches.
“You had to get something to run for a year without any problems and to troubleshoot all the things that could go wrong,” Mansfield explains. “I was used to troubleshooting in my own bedroom at home.”
The next year — in an undertaking reminiscent of the NetDays at American schools during the 1990s — Oak Hall volunteers brought in 10 additional machines and physically built a network — digging up the ground to lay cable, installing four 3Com switches, and connecting all of the school’s computers to the Internet.
“The majority of the people who are born on Andros Island stay there for their whole lives,” Mansfield says. “The idea was to connect students to the outside world, to let them explore other places.”
At the same time, Martinez adds, the IT projects have taken more than elbow grease, computer savvy and goodwill. “It’s been hard because it’s not a funded project,” he points out. “We’ve paid some bills with our IT money, and all of the cable came out of my budget.” He says he still keeps a sharp eye out for any computer equipment being replaced at Oak Hall.
Students Step Up
It has been as challenging onsite for the students who have traveled to Andros Island. Mansfield played a leading role in wiring the school, from setting up the switches to putting the actual Ethernet jacks on the ends of the cable.
It was the job of students such as James Vogler, now an Oak Hall junior, to run that cable through the school’s attic, where the temperature reached 130 degrees Fahrenheit.
“We’d drill a hole in the roof, get the cable into the attic, and then walk around trying to find the right room, where someone was tapping on the other side of the wall,” Vogler recalls, adding that some of Central Andros’ 300 students did their part in cutting cable. “They were working with us to improve their school,” he says.
Other Oak Hall students, meanwhile, instructed Central Andros teachers in using e-mail and the Internet. Martinez and his charges also taught the school’s new computer teacher how to troubleshoot garden-variety problems, and provided some long-distance e-mail support after departing.
“If there’s something I can’t solve, like a problem with administrative passwords, I’ll e-mail them, and they usually get back the same day,” notes the school’s computer teacher, Vanessa Smart.
Smart has even been able to get help with hardware problems. When a lightning strike knocked out a main switch and the school’s Internet connectivity, Martinez scraped together the money to send a new one.
A Lasting Effect
“It’s made a great impact,” says Forbes of Oak Hall’s technical contributions. “Not a lot of the kids have computers at home.”
“And some of them didn’t even know about the Internet,” says Smart, who was working in Florida before coming to the island. The school now has 40 computers with 20 located in the lab. “It’s brought us into the 21st century,” she says.
“We’re the first in the Bahamas to have access to the Internet for our entire school. We’re probably two or three steps ahead of other schools here that don’t have access to either the Internet or these applications.”
Besides learning basic computing skills, students learn to connect, set up and install software on computers. They are increasingly using the Internet for research, and the school’s business class practices doing payroll using Excel spreadsheets. Other classes use the computer lab to create PowerPoint presentations.
Along the way, Oak Hall’s Martinez says he has learned his own lessons about taking on a schoolwide technology project. “The first thing is to make it wireless. The infrastructure just isn’t there, the ground is hard for laying cable, and we only have a week.”
In fact, that’s just the aim of computer teacher Smart for Oak Hall’s next visit this spring. “I told them we’d like to go wireless and get a router,” she notes. “A lot of our teachers are buying laptops.”
Martinez and his student squad will also begin networking a nearby primary school.
The students making that trip will get some beach time and the chance to play their Central Andros counterparts on the new asphalt basketball court. But for the most part, they’ll spend their time helping their sister school.
Martinez says Oak Hall’s volunteers, many of whom are affluent and most of whom are college bound, are performing an impressive task: “They don’t go to Ft. Lauderdale on break. They go to Andros Island and work.”
Andros Island has a small tourist industry compared to the rest of the Bahamas, although it sits next to the second largest barrier reef in the Northern Hemisphere. But Andros does provide most of the fresh water to the island chain. Several times daily, tanker ships tap into Andros’ considerable fresh water sources, providing the island’s principal — and limited — source of income.
Andros is also known for its Seminole Indian culture, which has produced a number of skilled artists and craftsmen, who paint, carve and sculpt. Ecologically, Andros is home to more than 100 species of birds and 40 kinds of wild orchids.
Oak Hall School has company when it comes to engaging students in large-scale volunteer projects:
- At Delmar Elementary School in Maryland, a group of 9-, 10- and 11-year-olds volunteer to learn new technology skills after school, and then use their expertise to train teachers how to use this technology in their own classroom lessons. Examples include lessons with PowerPoint, digital cameras and scanners.
- For two to three weeks each summer, students at LaSalle College High School in Wyndmoor, Pa., participate in Community TechServe in conjunction with the University of Pennsylvania. The program aims to bridge the digital divide, as technology-savvy volunteers work in mostly inner-city education sites that have technological needs.
- Students from the Student Volunteer Project, based in Ontario, Canada, developed the official Web site of the Toronto group International Centre for Disability and Rehabilitation. The Web site includes information about the center’s international projects, as well as links to the group’s events.