Post & Courier Article – March 9,2024

By Teri Errico Griffis

When several dozen students headed into Cross Middle/High School’s extracurricular math night last week, they had no idea they would leave with a major surprise. Each of the 49 families in attendance will receive a personal laptop as part of a collaboration between the school, Palmetto Goodwill and the Lowcountry Digital Equity Coalition to provide students with not only internet but technological resources to access it.

As part of a pilot program for North Charleston-based Palmetto Goodwill, employees of its Power Up Computer Donation program refurbished 60 devices donated from the Social Security Administration to distribute to any families who showed up. 

The math night — a demonstration for parents to learn how they can support their child’s education outside of school — was the cover to draw in students, including a handful of college-bound seniors who previously had no idea how they would gain access to a computer for the school.

Ten more families of the high-poverty school have been identified to receive the remaining laptops.

“The students were shocked and kept asking if they get to keep them,” said Tiffany Brown, the principal. “I think so often because this is a rural school, it’s overlooked. And our kids deserve the same things that everyone else has. Our kids are capable of doing things that other kids are doing in other places.”

While Cross students have access to laptops in the classroom and can take them home during the school year, many families don’t have their own resources, particularly for the summer months or for needs unrelated to school, which can set them back academically, Brown said.

Cross students were also given internet hot spots courtesy of T-Mobile thanks to the work of Stacey Lindbergh, co-manager of the Lowcountry Digital Equity Coalition.

The alliance of more than 30 government, business and internet groups works year-round to ensure all students have access to the internet, with the Cross math night being the first of many laptop distribution events.

The program, with funding support from Comcast, is just the start of how Palmetto Goodwill is looking to expand its technology arm and put devices and hot spots into the hands of individuals who don’t have web access.

The Cross students are some of 425,000 South Carolina residents who stand to lose internet service in April when funding for the pandemic-era Affordable Connectivity Program, which provides reduced-cost internet connections, is set to run out.

While Palmetto Goodwill CEO Brian Itzkowitz wants to extend the pilot program, it’s a challenge to reach everyone, round up enough donations and scale up staff to handle the computer cleanup process. As it is, Cross is only one of 115 schools in the state where more than 40 percent of students qualify for free lunch.

Additionally, Palmetto Goodwill has but a handful of individuals who can refurbish computers that the digital coalition is looking to get donated in masses.

“We’d love to open this program up as a full-scale training so folks are getting those additional skills that they can take to load their portfolio and go out and get a job with us or other folks in the community,” Itzkowitz said.

To further support technology-related employment in the region, Palmetto Goodwill offers a free four-week fiber- optics installation training, through funding from Google.

Upon completion of the program, participants are certified and ready for field work. Employers are lining up to hire them at a starting wage of $18 an hour, said Mary Ann Gilmer, vice president of mission services at Palmetto Goodwill.

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