Submitted by Microsoft
When children in seven schools in rural Poland return to their classrooms in September, they will experience something many never dreamed possible: access to a computer.
The grant, which also includes a large collection of Microsoft’s educational software titles, will serve seven schools in a region that was once home to some of Poland’s many state-owned farms.
When the farms closed following the cultural and political changes that swept through Poland and other former Soviet-bloc countries in the 1990s, many towns and villages like Korsze and Barciany were left in difficult economic straits; 70 percent of their populations are now unemployed.
Microsoft is the first foreign corporation to make a social investment in rural Poland, and the grant comes at an opportune time, said Maria Holzer, director of the Polish Children and Youth Foundation (PCYF), which is administering the donation.
"Most of the parents in this region are unemployed," Holzer said. "They were workers in the state-owned farms. There is not much agricultural production now in the region, and the people there are generally undereducated."
Moreover, many children grow up in an environment where very poor housing conditions and alcohol addiction are the norms. Without educational and economic opportunities, Holzer said children become desperate and directionless, and are bound to repeat the cycle of poverty, welfare dependence and alcoholism that has ensnared their parents.
"Young people do not have positive role models to follow," Holzer lamented, "and they are subjected to either being slowly addicted to alcohol or to a lifestyle that inevitably leads to conflicts with the law."
Holzer said the Microsoft grant will provide an intellectual stimulus that she hopes will encourage students to continue their studies. In Poland, young people are required to attend school only through age 16. And poorly funded and equipped schools offer little incentive for them to stay.
Holzer said an updated, modernized school will help children "feel equal with the students in the cities where they would attend high school, so they will be less afraid to continue their education there. They will get the same technological understanding and education as the urban students."
Holzer and school administrators also expect to boost the children’s computer and Internet competence and, in turn, improve their academic performance and future employment prospects.
To accomplish those goals, the PCYF has undertaken a community-wide effort involving parental involvement and support, student mentoring, and teacher training.
Bolstered by the Microsoft grant, entire communities have rallied to support the school-improvement project. Local officials sponsored a renovation and refurbishment effort to improve the computer rooms—adding security windows and doors, non-electrostatic flooring, and computer desks and chairs.
The mayor of one village even provided a school headmaster with a cell phone so the school’s sole phone line—a rarity in that region—could be used for an Internet connection.
"One of the most effective outcomes of this project will be that the computers will be available to the community—for parents and others," Holzer said. In Korsze and Barciany, school administrators have set aside specific days when parents can receive computer instruction.
Special classes also have been established for teenagers, many of whom previously chose not to pursue high school studies. The teens are trained to become computer mentors for younger children.
Access to hardware and software, the Internet and printers will enable teachers to design new and previously unimaginable curricula. Instructors are getting specific computer training that will enable them to incorporate computing approaches in their lesson plans—whether they teach biology, Polish literature or other subjects.
Once teachers get acquainted with the software, Holzer said, employees in Microsoft Poland will work with the schools to help install and configure the technologies and to assist with the development of new curricular approaches.
Joanna Demirian, an international program manager in Microsoft Community Affairs, visited Poland recently and said she was amazed by the community participation that Microsoft’s involvement stimulated.
"I was struck by how engaged and excited the entire community was by the project and by Microsoft’s visit, which prompted many school fund-raising, cleanup and renovation efforts," Demirian said. "It was like we had been a catalyst for hope there. When I asked the children what they were most excited to do online, they didn't know how to answer; they had never been on the Internet.
"I can only imagine the enthusiasm that will be generated once they truly understand the potential of these labs. I felt so proud to know Microsoft’s contribution was going to allow these children to redefine their own possibilities."
Microsoft’s donation in Poland is part of a $900,000 commitment of funds and software to the International Youth Foundation (IYF). The donation, which will be administered by various IYF partner organizations -- such as the Polish Children and Youth Foundation -- will serve more than 10,000 young people in South Africa, the Philippines, Russia and Poland.
Activities in South Africa focus on providing young people in Soweto with computer skills to expand their career options, and training adolescents in rural areas in the use of technology that is used to promote the prevention of HIV/AIDS.
In the Philippines, disadvantaged boys and girls living on the outskirts of Manila are being trained in computer repair and maintenance with support from Microsoft. Additional funding is providing hearing-impaired children with access to specialized software to improve their speech, reading and writing skills.
Programs in Russia provide after-school activities to approximately 1,200 children and teenagers in the western part of the country. To help meet their needs, a youth club will open a technology center where young people may develop new skills, including basic word processing, Web design and Internet research. Additional funding is being earmarked to provide young people in two rural, state-funded schools with access to technology and training.
"The potential of today’s computer and Internet technology to motivate and engage young people throughout the world in a wide range of learning activities is enormous," said IYF Founder and President, Rick Little. "Yet access to these tools is far from universal. Microsoft’s support is enabling us to open up a world of learning and networking opportunities to young people whose life circumstances have prohibited them from taking advantage of these valuable resources."
Back in Poland, Holzer and local authorities cannot wait to introduce children to the new Microsoft technologies. "I have a great hope for this project. For the first time, I’ve seen a local community being so committed to education. And thanks to Microsoft and other stakeholders, children will benefit greatly."
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