Thanks to Bixby, Northlands students have Wi-Fi; others next?

VERGENNES — Phase Two of the Northlands Job Corps student Internet Wi-Fi arrived much more quickly than Phase One, which was the product of a yearlong effort by Northlands executives, its Student Government Association, and Bixby Library officials and volunteers.

On Wednesday last week, the Vergennes center’s 220 young vocational students who gathered in and around the campus chapel, home of the center’s new Wi-Fi hub, had for the first time to enter user names and passwords to log onto the network.

For the previous six weeks, since Wi-Fi first came to Northlands, that step wasn’t necessary. Students could just walk into or near the campus chapel and their devices would work.

But according to Northlands Student Government Association (SGA) President Evan Gardzina, a 19-year-old construction trade technology student from North Adams, Mass., students don’t mind the extra step — they are just happy to have Wi-Fi.

Not only have Northlands students never had Wi-Fi on their campus, it is the first on any of the 126 job-training centers for economically disadvantaged youths that are overseen by the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL). 

“Now that we have it, it gives it a little more of a sense of home,” Gardzina said. “You can go into the chapel, with nice air conditioning, and just talk to people back home or just surf the Web and relax. You don’t have to wait in line in the dorm like you used to have to.”

Previously, students had three alternatives: using expensive phone data, a problem for many; waiting in line for the one computer provided per dormitory; or trekking into town to take advantage of the Bixby library’s free Wi-Fi.

Peter Blash, a 21-year-old welding student from Southbridge, Mass., said the Wi-Fi hub makes a tremendous difference to him — and could also do so for the 30,000 other students who annually attend Job Corps centers around the country if things go well at Northlands.

“It’s a very homey feel being able to talk to your relatives at home, because some kids, their iPods don’t have the data to text, due to the $50 a month cost,” said Blash, who is in charge of community relations for the SGA. “Me, I use it a good amount of the time to watch welding videos, help myself get more techniques down, better myself in my trade.”

BIXBY BACKBONES EFFORT

Northlands center Director George Sabol — who was hired earlier this year for that position by CHP International, the latest center operator to contract with the DOL to run Northlands — gave the Bixby Library most of the credit for a pilot program that he said could help Job Corps centers retain students.

“This is a perfect example of collaboration with the community,” Sabol said.

The Bixby stepped in because it was dealing with a flood of Northlands students on evenings and weekends seeking the Wi-Fi. It is an uncomfortable truth, library officials said, that having unfamiliar teenagers hanging out on the library steps unnerved some residents and business owners. For his part, Sabol also noted that surveys of his students have shown many do not feel safe in Vergennes; he said he is working hard on improving community relations.

Meanwhile, the influx also made it hard for the small library to serve its patrons, said library executive director Jane Spencer.

“We would have on a Saturday and some evenings up to 30 Job Corps students here. And we welcome Job Corps students. I want to be really adamant on that,” Spencer said. “There was at certain times some strain on our resources. So we started talking about what can we do about that.”

Spencer and the library’s information technology committee decided to approach Northlands a year ago about creating the Wi-Fi hub as a way to help the center and the library.

“Having Internet through Wi-Fi on an educational campus made sense to us,” Spencer said. “And, actually, you could go so far as to say how could you have an educational institution that’s providing experiences for students to be ready for employment in the 21st century and not have it?”

Sabol said Northlands officials appreciated that creative approach.

“For the Bixby Library it was a problem, and it turned into, what can we do to fix this, and not just saying Job Corps students can’t come to the library,” Sabol said. “Bixby looked at it as how can we collaborate to do this. They got together and they helped write that plan. They gave us the expertise and the IT staff to put the whole plan together.”

Jon Sullivan, along with Ed Place, the co-leaders of the Bixby IT committee, said the Bixby worked with Northlands officials and former SGA leaders to come up with a detailed plan that could win approval from the DOL’s regional office in Boston and then DOL headquarters in Washington, D.C. — although it took longer at that level.

After some revision, the plan, including having the SGA paying Comcast’s monthly fee through campus fundraising work, was submitted late last year, and Wi-Fi came to Northlands on July 1.

“We gave them eight pieces of paper all stapled together and said, ‘Here’s our real plan,’” Sullivan said. “They took that quite seriously at the regional level. And suddenly we got notice that it was in Washington at the DOL level and just sitting there.”

Sabol said officials, ranging from Vergennes Police Chief George Merkel to Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), lobbying on the plan’s behalf helped it finally go through.

“George Merkel got involved, and the senator had to get involved, and they actually came together and said let’s send other information to Washington to say let’s push this forward,” he said. “So all of a sudden one day nothing was happening, and the next day we got this call saying, ‘All right, it’s being given the OK.’”

SECURITY AND FREEDOM

The plan includes safeguards: The hub is entirely separate from the Northlands system, so that it cannot be compromised; it only runs during non-school, daytime and early-evening hours; there are parental consent forms for students under 18; students must sign pledges not to harass or bully other students or to access pornography; and the addition of user names and passwords will allow officials to pinpoint offenders.

The Job Corps Development Center has also put some limits on the system, limits that Sullivan hopes will not become problematic.

Sullivan said that he heard from some students at Bixby that even some legitimate sites had been blocked at Northlands and is concerned that too much censorship of the Wi-Fi might discourage its use.

“The question is can we keep it open enough where it doesn’t squeeze the pipe down in what you can actually do,” Sullivan said. “The freedom needs to stay greater here than in other places here. That’s the point of it.”

Gardzina and Blash said they have yet to hear of any serious issues, and have heard no complaints from most users.

“I go on general sites that most students would go on here. I play games, and I’ve never hit any restrictions,” Blash said. “The majority of students haven’t hit any restrictions. There have been no complaints about the Wi-Fi since it has been turned on.”

Sabol said he hopes the existing compromise would hold.

“I also have to answer to parents,” Sabol said, adding, “What I love to hear is what they just said. What they are saying is no restrictions. That means there are sites they want to go to.”

LOOKING AHEAD

All involved would like to see Wi-Fi go nationwide to all Job Corps centers, with the national program, not SGAs, funding the Wi-Fi.  

Sabol said to an extent whether students around the nation can also enjoy Wi-Fi for the first time will depend on how well Northlands handles itself.

“For the 220 students at Northlands, the fate of the 30,000 is in a way in their hands,” he said. “And so far it’s been working well.”

Northlands students are determined to make it work, according to Blash and Gardzina.

“On behalf of the students, they feel really privileged that they were the pilot program,” Blash said. “Out of 126, they got picked to prove Job Corps centers deserve this. That’s an honor. That’s amazing in my eyes, and in a lot of other students’ eyes, too.”

Gardzina issued a slight correction.

“We didn’t get picked, though. We fought for it,” Gardzina said. “It shows we can be trusted, and it shows we can make a difference.”

Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at [email protected].

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