INS jump-starts student mentoring program

The Immigration and Naturalization Service this month kicked off a new mentoring program to train high school students particularly those in underprivileged areas on computers.

The agency also plans to make available next month a how-to handbook for other federal agencies interested in starting such programs.

The Partnership for Educational Excellence formed after President Clinton signed an executive order in April directing agencies to donate surplus computers to schools has generated a total of 185 computers to an elementary school in California and a high school in the District of Columbia.

But INS employees in response to criticisms that the executive order does not do enough to encourage federal employees to train students or donate software expanded the order's intent to include computer training software and even tutoring on subjects that are not related to computers.

"We're making this more than just a surplus giveaway " said Ronald Collison director of Information Resource Management at INS. "The hardware and the software are almost a minor part of this. We want to emphasize a long-term relationship to engage students."

Don Bard founder of the Baltimore-based nonprofit computer recycling group The Lazarus Foundation advised INS officials on their program and said "early indications are positive" that it will help high school students learn valuable computer skills.

But Bard warned that the success of computer donation programs such as INS' hinges upon the ability of program organizers to convince those involved to make a long-term commitment. "The reality is [that] the average person is not going to make that long-term commitment unless they get something out of it " he said. "Once volunteering becomes work and the media is no longer covering the program people tend to stop volunteering."

Bard has struggled to keep volunteers in programs his foundation has started in Baltimore. "It can be very frustrating " he said.

Partnering With Schools

Sara Burns national program coordinator for the partnership program at INS said agency employees are enthusiastic about the program which will be a partnership between INS offices and schools. She said about 30 INS border patrol agents have volunteered to train and tutor students on the 35 computers the agency donated to Smythe Elementary School in Televista Calif.

Burns said one border patrol agent told her "Before [students] used to throw rocks at us when we drove by in our border patrol trucks now they call us by name."

About 50 volunteers showed up this month at Ballou High School in D.C.'s poor Anacostia neighborhood to install DOS on about 150 systems. The software was donated by Microsoft Corp. Each classroom will have three to five computers. Burns said school administrators at Ballou may also form a lab to repair old computers.

Besides INS employees volunteers included teachers students and employees from Electronic Data Systems Corp. Maxima Corp. Telos Corp. Dynamic Decisions Inc. and I-NET Inc.

Last week Ballou held a ceremony to unveil the systems during which Vice President Al Gore sent an e-mail message congratulating the school.

For these programs to be successful Burns said INS must track the number of computers donated the number of volunteers at each site and their activities. Each school also will rate INS' efforts. "To keep this program going we have to effectively justify its existence " she said.

To spread the word about the program INS is developing a handbook for agencies interested in starting similar programs.

The handbook condenses policies from the Justice Department's property management office. It includes chapters on partnership agreements and agency requirements how to recruit and maintain volunteers personnel ethics lessons learned and public affairs and handling the media. "A theme that runs through the book is that you don't want to just dump the computers at the school " Burns said. forums.""

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