Link to Learn

Last spring, Lucretia Hoffman became a certified Novell administrator. Now she'll either push on for her Novell engineer certification or switch over and study "those cool geographic maps," she said, referring to geographic information systems. Not bad for a young woman who's 17 years old and still in high school.

Hoffman is gaining her technology education thanks to D.C. Link & Learn, a unique working partnership (not a charity) among federal agencies, a Washington, D.C., governing board and private companies such as Microsoft Corp., NationsBank and Bay Networks Inc. Its mission: to increase the marketability of unemployed and underemployed D.C.-area residents.

"The road to self-sufficiency [is] really our calling," said Archie Prioleau, founder of the Foundation for Educational Innovation (FEI) Inc., a Washington-based nonprofit organization that conceived and manages D.C. Link & Learn (www.link-learn.org). "We found that education wasn't enough if we were going to make a change in people's lives. But technology has the capacity to be the tool for that change." If its goals are lofty, its methods are grounded in technical and market reality. To guard against turning out a work force of data-entry operators, Prioleau and his team injects hard-core business practices into the program. That means making sure that the skills being taught are tailored for the local market, insisting that computers are state-of-the-art and that facilities are professional. It also entails maintaining a screening and counseling program to make sure students are learning and are interested in their chosen technology.

As part of the program, D.C. Link & Learn sends students on internships that show them what technology looks like in the real world. Hoffman's summer internship last year, at the Washington law firm Hale & Dorr LLP, "gave me a chance to see what I'd be doing every day all the time," she said. That includes seeing when "the system crashes, all the energy needed keeping up someone's network."

D.C. Link & Learn offers programs and support from early morning into the evening and serves senior citizens as well as children as young as 2, but high school students are "where we hit the hardest," Prioleau said.

In 1993 FEI started the precursor to D.C. Link & Learn at Ballou Senior High School in southeast Washington, Hoffman's former school. (She now attends a science and technology charter school.) The effort had great success: The students were all placed in entry-level technology jobs paying $20,000 to $30,000 a year. But the effort needed to nurture students individually convinced Prioleau that he would never make a difference unless he found a way to replicate that success on a much bigger basis. "We wanted to move not just seven or eight [students] but 7,000 or 8,000. We needed to figure out how to get the scale."

He did. An array of partnerships with government, private industry and higher education-not to mention a few hefty grants, including a U.S. Commerce Department Telecommunications and Information Infrastructure Assistance Program matching grant-has produced a 40,000-square-foot, $1.5 million, state-of-the-art, one-stop computer and information technology training center at the Waterside Mall in southwest Washington. D.C. Link & Learn officially opened its doors Nov. 19, 1998, and classes were scheduled to start Jan. 25. The center features a family technology center, an industry-certified work force readiness institute and a micro-enterprise incubator.

All that may sound a bit extravagant in the world of nonprofits, which usually feature government-surplus office furniture and 386-era computers. But if D.C. Link & Learn had any hope of attracting substantial corporate partners, it needed "a facility that was attractive enough for corporations to bring their clients," Prioleau said.

If you're looking for real estate near the nation's capital, it only makes sense to start at the top, with the General Services Administration-or as Prioleau calls it, "the world's biggest landlord." GSA couldn't offer direct funding, but the agency did give the project access to a large, unreconstructed space that formerly housed part of the Environmental Protection Agency.

Also, Prioleau took his case to Alice Rivlin, the Federal Reserve vice chairwoman and chairwoman of the D.C. Financial Control Board, which makes many of the de facto decisions on how the District is run. Together they created a revitalization plan for the city, with D.C. Link & Learn as a key factor in the equation.

The physical space, plus the support of local and federal government, made it easier for FEI to attract on-site business partners to create an in-depth, working business environment for D.C. Link & Learn. "We said, 'We'll barter. We'll build out the site to fit your specifications. In turn, you bring professional staff, content and support to the center,' " Prioleau said.

On-site partners in the Washington facility include nonprofits such as FEI itself, Associates for Renewal in Education Inc. and SMART Inc., a group that seeks to train young D.C. residents in science and technology. For-profit partners include FIRM2000 Technology Solutions, a private technology consultancy, and Mitchell Systems Corp., a systems integrator that also helps D.C. Link & Learn manage many of its technology relationships. Finally, D.C.-based Southeastern University maintains a satellite campus at the site.

FEI likewise has collected key technology players to participate in D.C. Link & Learn, including Microsoft, Novell Inc., Oracle Corp., Sun Microsystems Inc. and Bay Networks, which is installing a self-contained networking lab at the site. FEI maintains some of these relationships directly, such as those with Microsoft and Novell, FEI director of technology Christopher Taylor said. Others are managed through Mitchell Systems, which is an Oracle alliance partner and has a similar relationship with Sun, Taylor said.

FEI insists that these business and technology partnerships must be a two-way street, with D.C. Link & Learn and its partners coming out ahead. "It must be a business decision [to participate]," Prioleau said. "If it's a philanthropic decision, you feel good for about an hour. But if it's a business decision, you're in it for the long haul."

In exchange for participation, software companies with new products may gather beta-test data from D.C. Link & Learn students; show off their in-progress programs in a live business environment; and have an opportunity to hire students who are trained on those companies' products.

Likewise, D.C. Link & Learn's impressive technology setup is paid for with cash-mostly from grants won by FEI-just as it would be in the competitive business world. Taylor does get a "volume discount" of about 2.5 percent, he said, but that's influenced more by his previous buying relationships with Compaq Computer Corp. and his other hardware vendors than by D.C. Link & Learn's status as a nonprofit entity.

One of Taylor's primary responsibilities is to stay on top of technology to determine what skills are going to be most in demand. "Right now, everybody needs Cobol or PowerBuilder programmers for [solving the Year 2000 computer problem], but that's going to go away," Taylor said. "We look at demand to see if it's growing or already being fulfilled. Our job is to help people build viable careers rather than just get jobs." Right now, that means offering Microsoft-certified engineer classes and beefing up offerings for Oracle programming, Taylor said. To make such determinations, Taylor watches tech trends closely himself and consults with FEI's education specialists as well as analysts from Mitchell Systems.

D.C. Link & Learn adds an ingredient into the mix that helps to ensure that its graduates find work: It surveys local businesses-the places graduates are most likely to apply for jobs-to discover what skills applicants need now and what will be required of new hires in the future.

The program also acknowledges, through an evaluation and counseling service, that human nature plays a part in determining how successful a training program will be. Students who are well-educated but not particularly interested in a given area of study aren't likely to build a successful career in that area. Plus, what looks like fun in a lab can be a different experience in the business world. "We would be doing the students an injustice if we didn't tell them about the time commitment, the missed holidays and missed birthdays," Taylor said a bit wearily. "Engineering or net management isn't for everyone. Some people are better-suited to project-oriented jobs like programming."

Ultimately, D.C. Link & Learn has little control over the way students assimilate its message of self-sufficiency through technology. Hoffman, the young Novell administrator who interned at Hale & Dorr, said, "I like computers. I'm interested in the day-to-day workings." But she didn't miss a beat when asked if she's planning on a career in network management. "Oh, no," she said, "my goal really is to become a lawyer."

-- Tracy Mayor is a Beverly, Mass.-based free-lance writer specializing in information technology. She can be reached at tmayor@shore.net.

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Link & Learn's Tech Tools

Link & Learn's 100-megabit switched Ethernet network supports Microsoft Corp's Windows NT both front and back (Windows NT Server and Windows NT Workstation). Most of the 85 active workstations are Intel Corp. Pentium II 266 MHz machines with 32M of RAM, 1M network interface cards and 4.3G hard drives.

The three network servers are Compaq Computer Corp. ProLiants with 45G hard disks. Two of the ProLiants are dedicated World Wide Web servers, and the third is reserved for file and print work. Network managers use Microsoft SMS, and Hewlett-Packard Co.'s OpenView is to be installed shortly, along with Compaq's Insight Manager.

-- Tracy Mayor

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