A Workshop in Boston Changes a Center in Trenton

(featured on the Neighborhood Networks Web site in October, 2007)

During the summer of 2006, Shari Sabath had a center-changing experience. Sabath, director of the Kenyon Hodges Computer Learning Center, registered to attend the Neighborhood Networks Regional Technical Assistance Workshop (RTAW) that was being held in Boston. After reviewing the list of scheduled sessions, Sabath was excited to take part in the training event that she knew would provide her with the information and resources she needed to improve and invigorate the center. Just how positively the RTAW would impact the center, Sabath could not have imagined.

Inspired at Harvard, Implemented in Trenton

Sabath’s moment of inspiration came to her while she was participating in an RTAW digital arts session sponsored by the Neighborhood Networks National Consortium and held at Harvard University. Presented by Craig Davis, president and chief executive officer of the Youth Digital Arts CyberSchool (YDACS) and Vanessa Pabon of Telling Our Legacy Digitally, the session emphasized that becoming proficient in digital arts (painting, music, animation, and video game design) in college is too late. Children as young as third grade can learn the necessary skills and create professional-looking projects.

“I thought the whole concept was cool,” said Sabath. “The paintings, video games, and music the instructor shared with us were amazing. I knew we had to launch a similar program at our center.”

When Sabath returned home, she focused her efforts on implementing a digital arts program at the Kenyon Hodges Computer Learning Center. Her first step was to purchase five MPEG Audio Decoder (MAD) players, the devices used to compose music demonstrated at the workshop. Sabath then called Craig Davis of YDACS and registered some of her students for the Learning Through Music Technology course. An online school, YDACS focuses its instruction on students in the third grade through high school. Each $60 course is self-paced and allows students to enroll at any time online.

“I began with five students,” said Sabath. “And from the very first session, I knew it was a great program that we had to expand. These courses are not like traditional learning. They allow the students to express their creative side.”

Sabath then worked with Davis to expand her digital arts curriculum. “Craig helped me determine what I needed and who could help me get it,” said Sabath. “I then began building relationships with organizations and securing funding.”

One organization that helped Sabath expand the center’s digital arts program was MassIMPACT. With grant money awarded by MassIMPACT, Sabath purchased the software to offer two different video game design courses.

“For the future, I imagine how amazing it will be for a high school graduate to go to a college interview for the Media Arts with a portfolio of computer games, digital paintings, digital music, and animated characters that she has created,” said Sabath. “I can also imagine the micro-enterprise opportunities for the residents of our housing complex in selling their games, paintings, and/or music.”

Cool Program for the Hot Summer

This past summer, the center offered an expanded digital arts curriculum. Sabath applied for and was awarded a Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) grant from the City of Trenton that funded 15 spots in the program. The other spots were funded by donations from the property management company and private donors.

“For the summer program, students were divided into age-appropriate groups,” said Sabath. “We had 17 six- and seven-year-olds, 12 third through fifth graders, and 12 sixth through ninth graders. The participants all worked on various digital arts projects. And what was neat to see was how they all served as each other’s mentors and collaborators.”

Focused on the Future

The history of the Kenyon Hodges Computer Learning Center confirms the fact that center staff is always looking for ways to improve and grow. “The residents at the Kingsbury Twin Towers have always supported the center,” said Sabath. “When the center opened in 1996, it offered access to three computers with dial-up Internet access that were housed in a 250-square foot closet. In less than a year, we moved to a 1,500-square foot space with six computers that offered high-speed Internet. Today, we have nine computers. Even though we’ve accomplished a great deal, we’re always asking, ‘What next?’”

This fall, Sabath will use the remaining money from the CDBG grant to launch the Teen Academy. “This program is important to offer because it fulfills a need that the city has to provide more teen programs between the at-risk hours of 6 p.m. and 9 p.m. when the incidents of vandalism seem to peak. To participate, students must attend school. In addition to offering online courses, the academy will take students to art shows and on other field trips.”

Sabath is also planning to implement a mentor program in which the older students will mentor the younger students. Establishing an internship program for teens and young adults is another area that Sabath wants to explore.

“Even though the digital arts program is one of our most cutting-edge programs, it’s not the only program I am hoping to grow,” said Sabath. “I’m still looking for that big donor, or multiple donors, to fund a literacy program and mentoring programs. We already have an alternative high school program for adults, and we’re constantly trying to find new ways for the center to be all it can be for all of our residents.”