Who You Gonna Call...?

By Richard Butner — February 01, 2003 13 min read
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SWAT, aka Students Working to Advance Technology, offers schools tech support and provides valuable lessons.

Deep in the bowels of the Durham School of the Arts is a cinder block room that has no windows. The only sources of light are overhead fluorescent tubes and more than a dozen glowing computer screens that line the walls. Each monitor sports a printed label with a Star Trek character’s name: Kirk, Uhura, Worf, T’Pol. (“I’m the Star Trek geek,” technology teacher Darrell Thompson will explain later, with a hint of pride. “The kids aren’t interested in it at all.”) Only the network server in the corner breaks rank, declaring itself Gandalf, the wisest character in J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings.

At 3 o’clock on a Thursday in October, just after classes end at this grades 6- 12 magnet school in North Carolina, four boys and one girl amble into the computer lab. They come here religiously every week for their SWAT (Students Working to Advance Technology) team meeting. And though the kids are the school’s computer mavens, by no means are they geeks from central casting. There aren’t any pocket protectors or coke-bottle glasses here, just the usual kid uniforms: T-shirts, cargo shorts, and jeans.

The youngsters immediately plop down in front of sleek, black IBM computers and start typing away. But before getting to work, the boys bunch together in front of one monitor, crank up a Linkin Park CD, and hunt for computer games. The girl, 8th grader Anni Simpson, kicks off her sneakers and begins working on a section of the school’s Web site. Soon Thompson, SWAT’s teacher-leader, breezes in, and the boys turn the volume down from earthshaking to merelyearsplitting.

One of the team’s jobs today is to design ID badges for the student body. The kids have a list of names on a printout, but as die-hard technophiles, they want to automate the process. “What’s an easy way we can do this without manually typing everything in?” 14-year-old Adam Willard asks. “Can we find some way to auto-sort the list?”

SWAT team members.
—Photograph by Les Todd

While the boys attack the problem, Anni intensely focuses on the Windows Notepad program she’s opened. A couple of things are slowing her down, though. First, not every teacher in the school has supplied her with the information she needs to complete the pages; some aren’t big fans of the Internet, and others are reluctant to turn technical matters over to students. And because Notepad isn’t designed specifically for making Web pages, Anni has to type in text codes instead of clicking on graphical tools. Her fellow team members prefer the more user-friendly Adobe GoLive, a WYSIWYG (“what you see is what you get”) program. When asked why she chooses Notepad, Anni answers as succinctly as any techie who prefers a challenge: “GoLive is evil.”

Durham is not the only school with a SWAT team. There are hundreds nationwide, each staffed with young tech wizards who use their expertise to reduce repair and maintenance costs and train parents and senior citizens in computer use, among other things. They also conduct Internet research for teachers and tutor fellow students in using various programs. And, while honing their own technical abilities, SWAT members develop the kinds of leadership and teamwork skills that go hand-in-hand with making a contribution.

“Combining the talents the kids have here with service to their local community is really the point of a SWAT team,” Thompson says. “Yeah, we have fun, we get together, we play with the technical gizmos, but it doesn’t do much good unless we’re helping the school.”

And despite the complaints of computer-unfriendly teachers, it appears that these techno- savvy kids are doing just that.

The first SWAT team was put together in 1996, after teacher Lucy Miller moved from one job in Reston, Virginia, to another in Apex, North Carolina. While teaching grades 4 and 5 in Virginia, she got plenty of tech support for using computers in class; but her new school, Davis Drive Elementary, offered no such assistance.

Frustrated and almost ready to quit, she appealed to Davis’ principal, who suggested that she give up her classes and become the school’s technology coordinator and grant writer. Miller accepted but quickly realized that she couldn’t handle all the work—running the computer system, instructing kids in its use, and helping teachers—on her own. Inspiration struck when one of her students said, “I’ll teach you,” after noticing that Miller was having trouble using one of the school’s computer programs.

‘Putting kids in charge, giving them autonomy and ownership over their learning really makes a difference.’

Lucy Miller,
Teacher and
SWAT team Founder

Recognizing that youngsters, who often know more about technology than their elders, were an untapped resource, Miller created the first SWAT program that fall. To give kids a sense that this was serious business—and to winnow a group of 130 interested 4th and 5th graders down to a more manageable 75—she set up a rigorous application and interview process. Then she let them divvy up the duties. “Putting kids in charge, giving them autonomy and ownership over their learning really makes a difference,” she explains.

During the 1996-97 school year, the SWAT students at Davis proved their worth. They cleaned printers, helped create the school’s Web site, and taught fellow students how to use a computer note-taking program to save paper. They published short stories written by 1st graders and, to unburden Web-weary teachers, surfed the Net for educational materials on subjects ranging from Japanese festivals to African geography.

The SWAT members also matured considerably. “I felt proud that people would ask me for help on computer problems, and it gave me the confidence to do other things,” one student wrote on an evaluation form. Another, who served as a tutor, offered this insight: “I learned that it is hard being a teacher!”

Word eventually got out, and folks from outside of Miller’s school and district took note of SWAT. At the end of 1997, in fact, she was named National Technology Teacher of the Year by Technology & Learning magazine and Microsoft. The prizes included software and fourcomputers, with which Miller expanded the program, setting up tutor centers for community members at local libraries. The honor also drew the attention of LEARN NC, a program at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Education that promotes Internet use in K-12 classrooms.

SWAT teams are at work in 36 states, including North Carolina, where Paulette Jeffress (left) serves as a teacher-leader at Person High. She and Brittany Dunkley are cleaning computers.
—Photograph by Les Todd

The group offered to work with Miller to spread the program across the state. But Miller, at that point, wanted to go further. So in 1998 she began working at an education-based dot-com, where she planned to take SWAT nationwide. After the tech bubble burst, however, the company folded, forcing Miller to pursue the project from a home office. With technical support provided by the Digital Media Center at the Illinois Institute of Technology, she created a Web site (www.swatweb.net) that offers consulting services and allows teacher-leaders to swap resources and share stories. Today, SWAT teams averaging 15 members are at work in 36 states, and so far, at least 1,000 kids from elementary through high school have participated. The numbers likely are even higher, Miller says, because SWAT teams are sometimes set up without her knowledge.

Generally, a school forms a team by purchasing a $79 CD-ROM that includes the materials needed to take several basic steps: assessing the school’s needs, coordinating with administrators, publicizing plans, distributing applications and permission slips, and training and monitoring members. Age-appropriate sample activities are also included on the CD-ROM. Younger kids, for example, can take weather reports from the Web and share them with the school or act as virtual post office managers by collecting class e-mail addresses. Older kids can disseminate Internet-safety policies, gather material for yearbooks, and set up online chats with overseas “pen pals.”

Even though she manages a for-profit company, Miller considers SWAT a grassroots effort. There’s no certification process, she points out, and members may implement the program as they see fit. “I’m not prescriptive,” Miller says. “It’s fascinating to see how far all of the different teams are taking my ideas.” While some SWAT teams perform only simple tasks, such as replacing printer cartridges, others go as far as installing complicated software. Often, the extent of the assignment is determined by the technology available.

Today, SWAT teams averaging 15 members are at work in 36 states, and so far, at least 1,000 kids from elementary through high school have participated.

At Person High School, an hour’s drive north of the Durham School of the Arts, for example, kids don’t have many software options, and their computers, set up in the library, are relatively old. But what the students in the rural Roxboro school lack in resources, they make up for inenthusiasm. The team is twice the size of the one at the arts school, and members proudly wear big buttons declaring their SWAT status.

They do have a few new gadgets. Paulette Jeffress and Sharon Catlett, the team’s teacher-leaders, were recently given digital video cameras at a professional-development workshop. And today, during a SWAT team meeting in mid-October, their students are practicing some video basics. First, the teachers cover composition—how to frame shots and transition from one shot to another. Then they split the team in two for a scavenger hunt: The kids will have to prove they can operate the cameras by recording various items throughout the building.

Once the SWAT members master these skills, they’ll be able to help others with video projects. That’s good news for teachers, in particular: This spring, the kids will tape educators who, as they strive for National Board certification, must submit video documentation of their classroom work.

The SWAT team at Person High is as eclectic as those at other schools. Sophomore Derek Paylor, for example, does not spend all of his time in front of computers. He’s a member of the school’s literary and Spanish clubs, and he’s shooting for a career as a diplomat. “I want to be a teacher assistant later in school,” he says, noting that SWAT will prepare him for the position. “I’m building social skills by helping other people.”

Tiffany Whitlow, on the other hand, says, “Computers are my life. I’m a computer nerd. When I get home, I work on the computer practically all night. Why just stay home when I can help out at school by designing Web pages or by reaching out to teach parents Internet skills?”

‘Building a site or serving as a tech resource...allows students to see their coursework activities actually being put to use, rather than languishing for teacher-eyes only.’

Sydney Duncan,
Director of
Computer Instruction,
English Department,
University of Alabama

A tall, bespectacled sophomore, Tiffany works studiously in the school’s library, tucking her long blond hair behind her ears. Using Microsoft Word on a nearly obsolete PC, she carefully adds ready-made illustrations to the Web pages she’s creating and adjusts the placement of banner text. She’s only halfway done with the project, but she’s put in dozens of late-afternoon hours. Such conditions are hardly ideal for Web design, but Tiffany, who’s considering a career in computer programming, doesn’t mind. “It’s fun for me,” she confesses.

Kids enjoy the SWAT experience largely because they’re empowered by it, according to Sydney Duncan, director of computer instruction in the English department at the University of Alabama. “Building a site or serving as a tech resource...allows students to see their coursework activities actually being put to use, rather than languishing for teacher-eyes only,” she notes. “Being a valued resource is terrific motivation.”

Not everyone buys into SWAT, though. “The downside from a teacher’s point of view might be that this is annoying, one more unnecessary thing for them to do when they should be concentrating on the basics,” notes Thompson of the Durham School of the Arts. “That’s myopic, but it’s out there.”

In fact, many of Durham’s Web pages are chock-full of nonsense place-holders because teachers haven’t supplied Thompson’s team with requested material, such as course descriptions. Part of the problem, he notes, is a digital generation gap. A recent Pew Charitable Trusts report supports his view: In a survey of 136 middle and high schoolers, researchers noted that computer-savvy kids complain that their teachers “are at times frustratingly illiterate, naive, and even afraid of the online world.”

Miller backs up these claims, noting: “I had a problem in my elementary school with teachers saying, ‘Who are you to come in my classroom and take over? These [SWAT] kids come into my room and interrupt my time. If I have kids coming in, I want them to cut out stars. I don’t want them to help me with computers.’”

Naysayers might change their tune if they could assess SWAT’s benefits. Thus far, no comprehensive research indicates that the program does anything like raise test scores, but anecdotal evidence suggests that members’ problem-solving skills do improve.

SWAT’s financial benefits are a bit more obvious: Forest Park High School in Woodbridge, Virginia, for example, trimmed $35,000 from its annual budget by cutting its staff of network administrators from two full-time positions to one. The team also saved the school a lot ofaggravation—and money—two years ago after the company that was supposed to install 500 new Gateway computers failed to show. The SWAT kids completed the work instead, doing a $37,500 job for free.

The program also contributes to schools in not-so-obvious ways. At Orange Grove Elementary in Charleston, South Carolina, for example, SWAT kids use desktop publishing to produce fliers for school events. Kids at Eagle’s Landing High School, outside Atlanta, trained teachers to use PowerPoint for snappy presentations. And Sid Fleenor, campus technology coordinator at Montwood Middle School in El Paso, Texas, reports: "[We have] four computer labs, two portable labs, and many classroom and administration computers. I cannot be everywhere at once. My SWAT students are young, less than a year into this club, but they help me hold the fort down and keep many people happy.”

Back in September at Person High, the SWAT team began to bridge the digital divide between teachers and students by outlining its services to faculty with a PowerPoint presentation. Teachers soon turned to the team for research assistance, particularly digging up student-friendly Web pages appropriate for the topics covered in classes.

SWAT members don’t just help schools maintain and make maximum use of equipment; they also hone their own technical skills. Above, Person High students experiment with a digital camera.
—Photograph by Les Todd

As today’s SWAT meeting winds down, however, Tiffany, Derek, and the other kids don’t have time for research. Instead, they’re scrambling to finish their video scavenger hunt. After collecting their final shots, they return the digital cameras to Jeffress. Because the school does not have the equipment needed to connect the cameras to a computer, she hooks up one to a large television, then rewinds the tape and presses Play. The students sit patiently at the library tables, anxiously waiting to see their handiwork. For a few moments, the screen remains bright blue.

“Did we leave the lens cap on?” Tiffany wonders out loud. As Jeffress double-checks the connection between camera and television, the screen suddenly comes to life, showing quick cuts of the various objects and activities the members were asked to tape: a mirror, water, a dictionary, a team member running down a hallway. During school hours, this kind of thing would prompt a reprimand; but after hours, a quick romp is just one more perk for these techno-elite.

Most SWAT kids, however, are motivated by more than perks. Derek, for example, worries about the potential dangers associated with computers. When he read, on the SWAT application form, the question, “Where do you see technology going in the future?” his initial response was, “I see death and destruction.” But then, after careful consideration, he wrote: “We need to change that, to make sure that it doesn’t happen.”

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