March 10, 2006

Gift Computers Fall Into Students’ Laps – Laptops Help Evacuees Share Katrina Tales

By DEBRA LEMOINE, Florida parishes bureau

HAMMOND — Keith Tillman Jr., a sixth-grader at Hammond Westside Upper Elementary School, carefully pieced together the recorded sounds of various instruments Thursday, creating background music for a DVD of student stories about their Hurricane Katrina experiences.

Using a computer program called Garage Band, Tillman was working on an Apple iBook G4 computer, one of 40 laptops donated to the school by a New York-based nonprofit group called the Virtue Foundation.

“When Katrina hit, we really wanted to do something more long-lasting for the children,” said Dr. Joan LaRovere, a London-based pediatrician and co-founder of the Virtue Foundation, which also donated 20 laptops to the Renaissance Village FEMA trailer park in Baker.

“What better resource to bring to the state of Louisiana?”

The Virtue Foundation has teamed with the University of Louisiana System and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Media Lab to create a laptop-based curriculum for after-school learning programs.

The program is being piloted in Hammond and Baker and organizers hope to spread it to other schools with large populations of displaced students.

The idea comes from the statewide higher education forum Rebuilding Louisiana Through Education, where LaRovere connected with MIT Professor Eric Klopfer and University of Louisiana System President Sally Clausen.

Graduate students in education at Southeastern Louisiana University will team with the MIT Media Lab to develop curriculum and software for the students to use in the after-school programs.

The laptops arrived Thursday, but the Hammond school had borrowed computers from a neighboring Hammond Eastside Upper Elementary to prepare for the arrival of their own laptops.

The students were already using the music software program developed by MIT on Thursday to develop music for their personal Katrina documentaries.

Laptops also arrived at the Renaissance Village in Baker, which has set aside a trailer for the computer lab, LaRovere said.

At Hammond Westside, LaRovere told the students she sees great potential, which she hopes the foundation’s efforts will help unlock. Her goal is to create an educational opportunity out of tragedy, she said.

The documentaries of the children’s Katrina stories are being posted to the Virtue Foundation’s Web site as well as a special site created by Apple Computers.

About 12 percent of Hammond Westside’s students were displaced by the hurricane, school officials said. The displaced children and other students worked together to create the descriptions of what it was like to leave home and what it is like to share their homes with hurricane evacuees.

Tillman, a Hammond resident since before the hurricane, said he knows how the students from New Orleans feel because he has moved three times.

Tillman said the best thing that can be done for the hurricane evacuees is to rebuild New Orleans.

“Not that I want to get rid of them, but so they can get to their homes,” he said.

Tillman’s father, Keith Tillman Sr., is a minister at Christ the Anointed Ministries in Independence, and the father and son travel to area churches playing music, the younger Tillman said.

The younger Tillman, 12, started playing drums at age 3 but his talent in music rarely intersected with his school life until his school allowed him to use one of the new laptop computers.

Hammond Westside Upper Principal Alexa Hockfin said the donated laptops will help her school establish a one-on-one laptop program similar to one piloted last year at Hammond Eastside Upper Elementary.

The donation will first be used in the after-school program, and she said she hopes to obtain more computers to develop the one-on-one program.

Hammond Eastside Upper piloted a one-on-one laptop program last year in which students use laptops to do lessons in a paperless classroom and are able to bring the computers home.

Academic studies linking computerized lessons to learning are inconclusive, but Hammond Eastside educators believe its pilot program made a difference in its LEAP scores, bringing the fifth-grade scores up by 6 points and sixth-grade scores by 3 points, said Mary McMahan, the Eastside technology facilitator who also assists with Westside’s new program.

What the laptops do is engage children who already are “plugged in” to computers, cellular phones and video games at home, she said. Students who misbehave lose computer privileges, making the computer a good tool for discipline.