Jan 15 2008

Charity Begins With a Notebook

When Katrina sidelined New Orleans high schools, tech pioneer St. Joseph's Academy stepped to the plate with computers and more.

When Katrina sidelined New Orleans high schools, tech pioneer St. Joseph’s Academy stepped to the plate with computers and more.

Summer is the busiest time in the St. Joseph’s Academy (SJA) technology shop. Every other August, the Baton Rouge girls’ Catholic high school refreshes its 800 students’ notebooks. August 2005 was no different. The school planned to switch vendors and sell its 1,000 used notebooks. Then Hurricane Katrina hit.

Within days, the school was swamped with requests from hundreds of displaced students. The board decided to accommodate 250 new students, with priority given to seniors and juniors to facilitate on-time graduation. The decision, which represented a 30 percent increase in student population, stretched the campus to its limits and demonstrated the inherent flexibility that goes along with a high-tech operation. “Our investment in technology was a benefit at many levels,” reports Sheri Gillio, assistant principal of academics.

Tech Triage

After learning about the new-student deluge, infrastructure architect and computer science teacher John Richardson activated his go-to team of 25 students who work in the school’s warranty shop. “We wanted everything to be seamless for these girls who had lost everything,” notes Richardson.

On day one, the tech team diagnosed the hardware and software issues of 250 student notebooks. Students ordered necessary parts for overnight delivery. The following day the tech team formed an assembly line and initiated repairs, such as removing unnecessary data and programs and replacing worn touchpads and wireless antennas. The next day, the notebooks were as good as new, completely imaged with software and equipped with new e-mail accounts for the incoming students. At the network level, SJA had fortuitously prepped for the student overload. In January 2005 the school upgraded from a 6-megabit-per-second Internet pipe to a 20Mbps connection. “The network was robust enough to handle the additional traffic. Licensing was my main worry,” says Richardson.

But software vendors followed the school’s example and stepped to the plate, with several — including ScriptLogic, Microsoft and Computer Associates — donating 200 free licenses toward the effort. Coupled with SJA’s available licenses, all licensing requirements were met.

The upshot of the long weekend? When new students walked in the door, the notebooks were ready and waiting. The only task that could not be accomplished the day girls arrived was scheduling, says Gillio. Creating schedules for 250 new students from six different high schools was a logistical challenge, but technology did facilitate the typically time-consuming process.

The SJA academic team remained in constant virtual contact with each other and with students’ home schools. Gillio monitored course descriptions from students’ home schools and assessed which teachers could handle additional courses. The school created some courses, hired three new teachers and added new sections at different levels to accommodate the diverse needs of its new students. For example, some New Orleans students completed civics as juniors, not as freshmen do at SJA, so the school hired a teacher to handle the subject appropriately.

Teachers came out in full force, says Richardson, tackling every aspect of the effort, from sending students welcome e-mails to passing out uniforms and foregoing planning periods to teach additional courses. Gillio admits it was difficult for SJA teachers to take on additional courses but stresses that course-management software streamlined teachers’ workloads, making the load manageable.

SJA went the extra mile to ensure consistency and high quality for its new students, with Principal Linda Fryoux Harvison, a former economics teacher, contacting the Founda-tion for Teaching Economics to request its help in setting up an online economics course to maintain consistency for the 20 students enrolled in an economics course not offered at SJA. Harvison served as the onsite monitor for the course.

“I thoroughly enjoyed working with our New Orleans seniors in their economics studies and was gratified that we had the technology available to offer the online course,” Harvison says. “These were dedicated students who showed poise and maturity in dealing not only with their school work but with everything going on in their lives.”

The Transitional Campus

With the refurbished computers up and running and new students pouring through the doors, the SJA team turned to its next task. The school set up a dozen kiosks across its 15-acre wireless campus, providing displaced parents a home base as they completed insurance claims and forms for FEMA and Red Cross.

Most girls returned to their home schools within months of the hurricane, but the project had a lasting impact on participants. A handful, such as current senior Suzanne Vasser, remained in Baton Rouge. The notebook filled a void in Vasser’s upturned life. She not only found a new level of academic efficiency but also used it to connect with other displaced friends. As other students returned to New Orleans Catholic high schools, SJA donated notebooks, monitors and anything in storage to its devastated peers. The effort solidified bonds between SJA and New Orleans schools and met the original goals set by the school board — providing displaced students the academic tools necessary to continue their high school education and graduate on time.

Christin Hron, who spent the first half of her senior year at SJA after her New Orleans school, Mount Carmel Academy, was badly damaged by Katrina, says she and her classmates left with special memories of their time at the academy. “Everyone at St. Joseph’s did so much to make us feel welcome,” Hron says. “They will always be a part of one of the biggest things in my life. When I think about the hurricane, I will think about my time at St. Joseph’s and how much everyone did mean to me.”

Weather Wreaks Havoc

Two years ago, Hurricane Katrina walloped New Orleans and the southeast coast; severe weather continues to pack a punch elsewhere.

In Rockford, Ill., heavy storms last August caused $150,000 in damages at two dozen schools, ranging from leaks to soaked carpeting and hallways.

Holcomb (Kan.) High School closed for a week after heavy wind blew off part of the school’s roof last year.

The Findlay (Ohio) City School Board postponed the start of the school year last September after sustaining flood damage.