The Somerville Community Computing Center: A Day in the Life

What happens at a community computing center? A lot. If the Somerville Community Computing Center (SCCC) is any example, you'd think a place like this never rests. From the first burst of 9 year olds at 8:30 am to the last public access user shutting down a Mac at 8:30 pm, these three labs see over 150 people a day, stand up to thousands of typing lessons, word processing documents, desktop publishing efforts, and mouse tutorials. But what is it really like to be a tool for change all day, every day in a community lab? Come visit the SCCC on a typical day and see...


Adult education teachers and human service workers file into the large brick building in this city of 76,000. The adjacent elementary school has been underway for half an hour, enough time to line up for the walk to the Apple II lab. In minutes it will fill with 20 jostling 4th graders, their teacher, Florienne, and a parent aide, both of whom speak to this bilingual class in English and Haitian Creole. Many of the students have just arrived from Haiti. Today they are writing stories about the wide world of animals.


The IBM and Mac rooms begin to fill up. 17 adults from 14 different countries are seated around the edges of the room, intent on the screens of Mac SE30s and LCIIIs. This class of English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) is learning to use Kid Pix, drawing pictures to illustrate stories they're writing. Quietly intent on the machine in the corner, an AmeriCorps*VISTA volunteer checks her email. Earlier, the building administrator sat in the same seat to look up her son's new World Wide Web site for his flower shop. In the PC room a group of mostly middleaged women who are part of the welfareand unemployment officefunded Office 2000 program are confidently working on Lotus 123 spreadsheets.


The Apple II lab empties of 4th graders and refills with a jumble of Headstart 4 and 5yearolds . Climbing up on chairs twice their height, they are soon rapt at the dancing bird and electronic jingle of Picadilly Pair, as comfortable with these keyboards as they are with crayons. Teachers and aides circulate, adjusting screens, suggesting keys to hit, enjoying the change of pace.

There are excited voices in the hallway and it's clear another ESOL class is on its way to the PC lab. They only come to the computers once a week and are even more eager than the elementary school students to use computers. They come with handwritten stories they are going to print out for a book the class is working on.


The adults are just finishing up in the Mac and PC labs, though a few stay on to finish assignments. John, AmeriCorps* VISTA volunteer, takes this chance to check on Opus, an SE that's been flaky lately. Another VISTA is working on a Pagemaker sign asking people to limit their Internet time to 15 minutes if others are waiting. A volunteer writer and desktop publisher, who also happens to be homeless, edits the new SCCC brochure during this momentary lull.


Public Access is beginning to settle down after the opening rush. Most people have signed in nd are working away on individual projects. A French woman is translating something officiallooking. A young Lithuanian couple are revising a desktop publishing project. An older man squints at a tutorial on the Mac. One homeless regular is weaving his way through Quicken for the first time; he may have a temp job tomorrow if he can master the basics today. Another checks the page numbering of his novelinprogress. A longtime participant prints out a letter to one more state representative about the legislation she's been trying to change. The printer churns out resumés from all corners of the room.

Suddenly the quiet, energized air of concentration is broken by the swish of athletic jackets whipping around the corner and into the Mac Lab. Four seventh graders stop long enough to sign in, wave "hi" and charge for the open computers. There's a moment's tension¾are the adults about to be put out by the rambunctious founders of the highly popular afterschool program, Dyno Klub? Not to worry, the four of them are immediately ensconced at screens, dictionaries poised at the tops of the keyboards, homework assignments unfolded. They've actually outgrown Dyno Klub, a dropin program they started last spring by simply showing up when the labs were free. Last April, when their numbers grew to 15 the official Dyno Klub was born and VISTA volunteers have kept it going since, adding another two hours of afterschool access on Mondays. These four are actually in their third stage of using the SCCC: they first came with their teacher from the elementary school next door.


A straggling resumé writer prints, saves and closes the last draft 15 minutes after Public Access has ended, while an adult ed student walks into the Mac lab hoping to finish some homework. She's warned she'll only have 15 minutes before the Mac Monday crowd descends.


Mac Monday is in full swing. Muse, Mohammed, and their sister Zainab are working on Mac Monday Pagemaker newsletters. Zach is trying to get people to move into his Sim City. Joel, a local high school student volunteer, is helping Sumit make the helicopter in his drawing hover in the correct place over the house. John, the VISTA leader of this pack, is explaining to Cory how to make "Detroit Lions" bold.

Across the hall a group of Adult Basic Education students are getting an introduction to technology with "The Friendly Computer" disks on the Apple IIs. Next door to them another ESOL class is learning WordPerfect, adding not only to their English skills but also increasing the potential for finding jobs.


For a moment the three labs are quiet. One of the adult ed counselors who has just been laid off is working on her resumé at the same computer she was writing reports on last week. An evening volunteer has been here all afternoon trying to reinstall the system files on an aging but sturdy 286. The VISTAs are sneaking in some work time on the Macs. The door bursts open and suddenly another evening volunteer appears, hidden behind a huge box of software. A customer of his has some copies of Photoshop and Aldus Illustrator to give away. Do we want them?

By 5:45, eager faces are peering through the window and knocking: Is Public Access open yet?


Public Access is open and there is a crush of winter coats, hats, mittens and backpacks in the narrow hallway near the signin sheet and donation box. One volunteer is explaining the signin process to a middleaged woman who hasn't been here before. Another is pulling the Wordperfect 6.0 tutorial book from the drawer. The regulars head straight for their favorite computers.


The evening's settling into its usual oscillation between mild chaos and studious concentration. A mouse isn't working. Somebody's trying to open a PC disk in the Macintosh. Somebody needs to know how to start up the Lotus 123 tutorial. How do you spell check? Can you help me put this in a table? Do you know what I press to make the window bigger? How come I can't see what I just did? A volunteer is kneeling beside a new user, reaching across to point at someone else's screen, getting paper for the pinter. Things get quiet for a moment and the two young tech volunteers are designing a cheap way to network the lab for Internet access. Somebody wants to know what kind of computer to buy.


The last public access participant has left and the volunteers are doing the final shutdown. Chairs pushed in, machines off, lights off, alarm set, door locked. It's time to give these machines a rest. Less than 12 hours later, they'll be on the job again.

Of course, the Somerville Community Computing Center doesn't ever have a single typical day. There are the days where the Community Schools program fills two labs with eager writers and artists and publishers. There are the ones when the afternoon is spent in a staff training session on the Internet or some other topic. There are those Thursdays when a crew of volunteers undertakes an inventory or attends an applications training. Some mornings find eightyearolds finishing class and handing over their seats to eightyyearolds. Or parents being led by their children to a new game. Or the AmeriCorps VISTA volunteers from all of New England being trained in desktop publishing.

What's typical is the constant flow of new computer users, the diversity of ages, languages and cultures, the predominance of lowincome participants, and the abiding curiosity about these machines. What's typical is the beginner's fear of the mouse, the learners' need to explore, the excitement of discovering a new skill. What's typical is people who wouldn't otherwise have access to technology finding themselves not only with access but with teachers, volunteers, VISTAs, and peers who make it easy to learn.

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