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Catholic school, KC charter join effort to bridge digital gap

Updated: 2014-01-07T02:47:22Z

By JOE ROBERTSON

The Kansas City Star

People brought together by a rare partnership between a Kansas City public charter school and its Catholic school neighbor were thinking big.

Community-changing big. Life-changing big.

They certainly had 14-year-old DeMarco Melson’s attention.

St. Peter’s School and Banneker Academy charter school recently gathered a host of people they thought might help spur a dream of creating independent community centers devoted to technology experiences for children and adults.

DeMarco is such a tech enthusiast that his goal is to make it to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

But as a ninth-grader now graduated from the K-8 Banneker program, he feels the isolation that many tech-savvy teens experience, especially in low-income neighborhoods, not knowing whether the help and programs he craves will be there for him.

He liked what he overheard in the nuts-and-bolts conversation at Banneker.

He liked the idea of a communal nest for volunteers and mentors to work with students young and old in romping through the technological world.

If they can pull this idea off, he said, “I would come every day it’s open.”

It won’t be easy. And it will rely on the help and advice of many agencies and organizations already at work trying to bridge the digital divide between those with and those without 21st-century resources.

But the two neighboring schools already have gotten a taste of where partnership can lead.

Banneker and St. Peter’s sit on opposite corners of Meyer Boulevard and Rockhill Road.

In early 2012, William Wells was guiding a successful robotics program at Banneker, though he was frustrated at times in the unending task of reaching people and financial resources to link many low-income children to event opportunities.

Paula Holmquist, as St. Peter’s communications director, was sitting in her office, contemplating the Rev. Stephen Cook’s spoken desire that the parish deepen its connections with its community and help erase racial and economic dividing lines.

Hardly 100 feet away, across Rockhill, sat the charter school Holmquist hardly knew.

She knocked on the door and was met with a greeting just as friendly as hers by a receptionist similarly unfamiliar with the neighbor school she knew only as being Catholic.

“She asked me, ‘Are you a sister?’ 

In the nearly two years since, the schools have been sharing time and ideas, especially working toward science and technology competitions.

They’ve brought in another partner, the French immersion charter school Academie Lafayette, and joined in the national Student Spaceflight Experiments Program to design experiments that will be carried out on the International Space Station.

A program shooting for the stars, so to speak, doesn’t want limits on opportunities. Now comes the grander community center plan, said Wells, who has worried how Banneker’s efforts for its children can keep pace with the fast-changing world.

“No one knocked on the door to get our kids in (science and technology) programs,” Wells said. “We got in because we kicked the doors in.”

They are calling their idea aSTEAM Village. It takes the familiar acronym STEM — science, technology, engineering and mathematics — and adds a capital “A” for the arts. The lower-case “a” at the front intends to give it the phonetic sound of “esteem.”

Think of a center for brain sports, they say. Not just for youths but adults as well, and parents who want to help their children or make better opportunities for themselves. Techie mentors who want to help students would have a place to start. It could be a training center for teachers.

“We want a place where kids can walk to,” Holmquist said. “Or get on a bus and get there. Comfortable, like a gymnasium. We want that sense of community.”

A lot of people have been thinking along these lines.

The KC STEM Alliance has imagined a similar kind of center focused on providing space and resources for high school robotics teams.

“It has to be accessible,” Martha McCabe, KC STEM’s manager of STEM initiatives, told the planners at Banneker. “It has to be safe. It has to be staffed. And it has to be engaging.”

The logistics, beyond the already daunting task of attaining and maintaining a facility sufficiently stocked with technology, will be demanding, warned Dave Dalton.

Dalton knows from his work in creating a facility in the same neighborhood called Hammerspace — a hobby and community workshop where people rent space to carry out projects or simply come and bask in the work of other creative minds.

He’s eager to help with aSTEAM Village and he thinks many volunteers will come out. There also may be support, he said, to obtain elaborate equipment such as a 3-D printer.

“But who will pay the $30,000 a year for the printer repairman you will need when it breaks down?” he said.

Community centers may help combat what McCabe said are potential “volunteer deserts” that people promoting STEM programs fear arise in low-income communities.

The KC STEM Alliance, which supports robotics and Project Lead the Way’s engineering curriculum for schools, is still researching the area’s volunteering trends. The alliance knows that many people seek out high-needs schools to volunteer in, but it suspects that people more often like to serve close to their homes.

And even when someone wants to help a particular school, connections often happen after regular school hours, and security measures can make schools seem hard to approach.

“People have a high capacity and high desire to volunteer,” McCabe said. “But they don’t know where to turn.”

Wells is certain that community support will grow when people meet eager students like Ja’Lyn Lewis.

The 14-year-old Banneker eighth-grader called herself “a big thinker.” She sees herself running a computer coding business, a coding website, creating three-dimensional designs.

She is helping promote the idea of a community center, but she and her parents in the meantime plan to check out her potential high schools for next school year to see which has the best robotics and technology programming.

DeMarco isn’t waiting around, either.

The idea of Dalton’s Hammerspace, already bustling with creative builders on 63rd Street not far from Banneker, piqued DeMarco’s curiosity.

Would anyone be there that afternoon? DeMarco asked Dalton.

Yes, Dalton told him. Come on by.

To reach Joe Robertson, call 816-234-4789 or send email to jrobertson@kcstar.com.

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