Raine Hackler hopes his promise of a free notebook computer will help his students stay in school and graduate.

Oct 27 2008

Inspiring Students to Learn

Atlanta teacher gives promising youths a helping hand.

Atlanta teacher gives promising youths a helping hand.

When Atlanta teacher Raine Hackler makes promises, he keeps them. Just ask his fifth-graders from seven years ago.

It was the last day of school in 2001 — graduation for his fifth-graders at Centennial Place Elementary School. Hackler, who joined Atlanta Public Schools that school year, celebrated the occasion by giving each student a CD featuring their favorite music and class photos. He also made them a promise: “When you graduate from high school, find me. I will give you a laptop computer for college.”

He’s made the same promise to his students every year for the past seven years. Most of his students come from poor, crime-ridden, drug- ravaged neighborhoods, where drop-out rates are high. “I really target the students who have had difficult struggles,” says Hackler, Atlanta Public School’s teacher of the year in 2007. “I just pray that they will make it. They just need a few teachers to inspire them.”

Hackler, 42, is one of those inspirational teachers. This past spring, two students from his original fifth-grade class e-mailed him, telling him they were graduating. Hackler bought notebook computers with his own money and some help from friends and family. He attended their graduation ceremony with gifts in hand. “It was a remarkable ceremony and it brought me to tears,” Hackler recalls.

Love and Concern

Before settling in Atlanta, Hackler taught in Canada for 10 years. Then he globetrotted for three years, taking teaching jobs in far-flung places such as Thailand, Malaysia and Zimbabwe.

Hackler, now an administrator at Thomasville Heights Elementary School, is gearing up for the next batch of former students who will graduate and is saving to buy more computers. He’s even exploring the idea of launching a nonprofit organization, named Laptops for Life, so he can seek donations and grants for the effort.

“The idea behind it all is love and concern. I want them to succeed in life,” says Hackler, who taught three years at Centennial Place and the past four years at Thomasville Heights. “I want to change their lives and build their self-esteem because if no one cares and they are invisible, they may drop out of school.”

His colleagues say he’s a natural with children and one of the most giving people they’ve ever met. Thomasville Heights is a school in an economically challenged, largely African-American neighborhood with a prison and housing projects nearby. The students are exposed to drugs and violence in the community. It’s a tough atmosphere in which to succeed, but Hackler does his best to give his students hope for a brighter future.

For the past three years, he has taught computer skills to each grade level at Thomasville Heights. With his principal’s support, he has kept the computer lab open every school night so his current and former students could have computer access and a place to do their homework.

Hackler collects clothes that he offers to students and keeps his room stocked with school supplies for those in need. His colleague Audrey Wike, who teaches listening and speaking class, says Hackler has even given furniture to his students’ parents.

“He has an amazing aura and spirit about him, and if people are acting hostile, he’s able to reverse it and bring the love out of them,” Wike says. “When he came here, he inherited one of the worst classes anyone could teach, but he turned those kids around within a three-day period. Any kid he comes in contact with, from the baddest of the bad, he changes them. He’s so giving, it’s incredible.”

Choosing Atlanta

Hackler’s after-hours computer lab is so popular that he has to schedule time slots so each student can be guaranteed access.

This summer, Hackler unofficially adopted two former students — an 18-year-old who just graduated and his 16-year-old brother — and bought them notebook computers, too. In late August, he gave away a fifth com­puter, thanks to a donation from his family, to a deserving student who’s now a high school senior. He hasn’t graduated yet, but needs it for his school work, Hackler explains.

Albert Baughns, the 18-year-old that Hackler took in, says his mom recently moved to the other side of town. He and his brother wanted to stay in the neighborhood where their friends are. So he asked Hackler if they could live with him. Hackler agreed. This summer, Hackler bought Baughns a computer and a trip to Florida as his graduation gift.

“It means a lot,” says Baughns, who plans to attend college but needs financial aid to be approved first. “He helped my brother with reading. He taught me how to drive. He’s a good teacher.”

Hackler credits his parents for his compassion and patience with children. “I have two compassionate parents. My dad [who was a teacher] always had a student less fortunate than us go with us on hiking or camping trips. My mom has the same quality of constantly giving,” he says.

As a computer teacher, Hackler has taught students how to build PowerPoint presentations and websites, use Microsoft Excel and take pictures with digital cameras. He also teaches students how to do research using Internet search engines and how to avoid committing plagiarism.

Now in his eighth year in Atlanta Public Schools, Hackler no longer finds himself in the classroom on a daily basis. His principal, Janice Kelsey, felt it was time to groom him for an administrative role. In his new job as instructional liaison specialist, he trains and evaluates teachers, implements new state educational standards and orders classroom supplies. Kelsey convinced him to take the job because it would ultimately help better educate the school’s 500 children.

“He’s a gifted teacher and can help teachers get better, and in doing so all the children can benefit from what he has to offer,” Kelsey says.

Hackler says he’s enjoying the new job, but is happy that he can still meet with children regularly. “I’m able to offer support and coach them through their troubles and send them on their way in a better state than they were in,” he says.

Hackler says he looks forward to handing out more notebook computers to his students who graduate. Surviving a serious illness in the late 1990s has given him a unique perspective on life.

“I am truly blessed to have a roof over my head. I love what I do and have everything I need,” he says. “Surviving cancer has shifted my perspective. I value every moment even more. Our children are critical, and every moment I have is an opportunity to make a difference.”

The Kalamazoo Promise

Students at Kalamazoo Public Schools in Michigan have a huge incentive to stay in school: If they graduate from high school, a nonprofit organization will fund their college education.

A small group of wealthy, anonymous donors launched the nonprofit, called The Kalamazoo Promise, in November 2005. During the program’s first two years, about 750 out of 900 eligible students took advantage of the scholarship. This fall, about 800 students have signed up for classes and are receiving tuition payments.

“The donors wanted to give something back to the community and to help re-energize it economically and socially, and the result is The Kalamazoo Promise,” says Bob Jorth, the nonprofit’s executive administrator.

The organization will pay tuition and other mandatory fees for any student who attends a public Michigan university or community college. Students have up to 10 years to use their four-year scholarships and must maintain a 2.0 grade point average and a full load of courses.

The program rewards students who have attended Kalamazoo Public Schools the longest, Jorth says. Students who have attended school all 13 years get 100 percent of their tuition paid. Students who attended only high school get 65 percent of their tuition paid.