State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School

Making Connections: Schools Come Together Thanks to Exciting New Partnership

Washington, DC's Sidwell Friends School Partners with Kumasi, Ghana's Opoku Ware Junior High.
Washington, DC's Sidwell Friends School Partners with Kumasi, Ghana's Opoku Ware Junior High.

I am in Kumasi, Ghana, for the launch of a great partnership between Ericsson, the mobile phone giant; Zain, the 3-G broadband giant; the City of Kumasi; 18 Kumasi public schools; and the Millennium Cities Initiative.

Ericsson and Zain are connecting these 18 schools to the Internet, the Mayor of Kumasi is donating computer labs for the participating schools, and a special ceremony, featuring Earth Institute director Jeffrey Sachs, corporate executives from the two companies, the Mayor of Kumasi, a traditional chief representing the King of the Ashanti and 1000 high schoolers at Opoku Ware Senior High School will mark the start of this project, which will be inaugurated when senior and junior Opoku Ware students and teachers connect via the Internet to middle and high schools students and teachers at Sidwell Friends School, in Washington, DC.

Ericsson, Zain, the mayor’s office, the traditional chiefs, Sidwell Friends and the schools themselves are very excited about this event, and there has been a lot of planning to make it go smoothly. But I couldn’t help but think back, even as we are preparing for this exciting moment for these schools, to the last time I was in Kumasi, only five weeks ago.

At that time, I had no idea that Ericsson and Zain would be willing to partner with MCI to connect these schools, most of which had no viable computer equipment or Internet connection. We had nevertheless had a very successful, old-fashioned sort of exchange nearly a year ago now, when seventh-graders from Sidwell Friends had come and taught science labs testing water quality to their peers at Opoku Ware Junior High. On the basis of this experience, MCI convened the junior high school principals, who requested that such partnerships, going forward, continue to focus on science, as well as mathematics and technology.

So I had done my homework, and had found a terrific sixth grade teacher in Washington, DC, to lead this experiment from the American end, and I went to Kumasi in search of a junior high school ready to partner with this American middle school.

I visited two of the schools whose principals had requested these partnerships. Both have able principals and motivated teachers. But the first one, where I had accompanied the science lab school-to-school mission last year, had no working computers at all, aside from the principal’s own, and almost no computer literacy among its faculty. At least, its math and science teachers had no Internet connection and little apparent familiarity with computers and the Net. (With no technology, there was no technology teacher.)

The other school, only 300 yards away, “as the bird flies,” as someone told me, seemed a world and a century apart. It has an immense and cheery computer lab, with some 30 good-looking desktops, all of which are linked up. I arrived there after school had let out, so I only saw teachers there, tapping away on the keyboards with utter comfort and familiarity.

Having visited the first school previously, I knew some of the students there, and after our visit, the American students and I had managed to have follow-up emails with just a few of them, those who had access to computers at home or at Internet cafes. I knew how happy and eager these students had been to do the science lab the American kids had brought them, to reach out to people similar to themselves, to share their passions, their aspirations, their favorite music, their soccer teams, to make meaningful connections with the American students and to sustain them.

I then tried to imagine the students at the second school, having all that marvelous equipment, and being at the point where using it was already second nature. “Only 300 yards as the bird flies,” as I was told, but the digital divide makes the distance between the otherwise similar schools sooo much further.

Thanks to Ericsson and Zain, the Mayor of Kumasi and Kumasi Metropolitan Assembly, and to school principals who know what their students and teachers most need, this unfortunate, crippling gap will now be filled for at least the 15 junior and three senior high schools participating in this pilot project. It was fun imagining the kids I had known at the first school, now suddenly able to download their favorite music, to track a submarine, to learn about the polar ice caps melting or new scientific advances against hunger, to check the scores in their prized football matches, to find help solving algebraic equations and to be able to share all this freely, over the Internet, with their new American friends.

Erasing inequities is usually really hard. Doing it in this case would be a miracle, if it weren’t simply a compassionate, generous and distinctly human gift on the part of so many, acting smartly and collectively, to solve a problem.

I can’t wait until the partnership launches.

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