Digit All Systems: tech training for Baltimore's 'untapped population' - Technical.ly Baltimore

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Nov. 14, 2012 10:00 am

Digit All Systems: tech training for Baltimore’s ‘untapped population’

Since 1998, Digit All Systems has certified almost 2,400 people and donated more than 300 computers to Baltimore city schools.

Trayvon Leonard, left, with Digit All Systems founder Lance Lucas.

In part two of a series about Digit All Systems, Technically Baltimore takes a look at the computer certification work Digit All does with city public schools and nonprofits. Click here to read part one about Digit All Systems' founder, Lance Lucas. Click here to read part three, on Digit All's new cloud computing curriculum, Street Geeks, and whether computer certifications are the way to a new tech workforce.
If you went looking for Trayvon Leonard during his senior year of high school, chances are you’d find him in the youth shelter on Rose Street close to Baltimore’s Middle East neighborhood.

For four months, Trayvon woke early to clean up trash so he could earn his keep and some cash on the side. Before setting camp on Rose Street, Trayvon, his twin brother, Tracie, and his younger brother, Ricardo, had been moving from house to house—and moved twice from different homeless shelters—during 2011.

In May of that year, Trayvon met Lance Lucas, the founder of Digit All Systems, the downtown-based nonprofit that offers computer certification courses. Lucas took Trayvon to the city Housing Authority and enrolled him in the A+ computer certification course Digit All sponsors there. Four months later, Trayvon started teaching night classes for Lucas at Digit All, founded his own computer repair business with his brothers and eventually made enough money to move into a house. Now 20, Trayvon is employed by a contractor company that works with BGE to install commercial lighting.

Since 1998, Digit All Systems has certified almost 2,400 people and donated more than 300 computers to Baltimore city schools. In 2013, Lucas plans to launch Digit All’s Street Geeks cloud computing curriculum, as well as a “digital desk” to make Digit All’s computer certification curriculum available online across the U.S.

Providing unemployed Baltimoreans skills in IT and computing in the hopes that they’ll gradually earn paying work is the impetus behind it all. As Lucas is fond of saying, “The only inoculant for poverty is education.”

Watch a video of one of Digit All Systems’ computer giveaways:

The meat of Digit All Systems’ work is through its partnerships with schools, agencies and fellow nonprofits. On Lucas’ staff are 10 contract teachers, who teach computer certification classes for students at Baltimore Talent Development High School, ex-offenders at the Center for Urban Families and 18- to 21-year-olds in a youth-to-work program at the city Housing Authority. In 2012, thus far, Digit All has taught A+ certification to 25 students at Digital Harbor High School, and Lucas says more than 200 people will take “some sort of certification test” before the year’s end.

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In 2011, Digit All Systems certified more than 100 people:

  • More than 80 people trained at the Center for Urban Families. Lucas says the ex-offenders they teach are “guys [who] have been incarcerated for 15 years and have never touched a computer.”
  • At the Housing Authority, 18 people were trained.
  • At Baltimore Talent Development High School, 17 students were trained.
  • Through a program in East Baltimore, 11 people were trained, and through a different, America Works program, Digit All certified seven people.

In some cases, the certifications lead to jobs. Lucas’ graduates have found work at Constellation Energy and video game development firms. But getting people jobs, especially work that uses those new computer certifications, can be a slog.

Just 82 percent of the students certified at the Center for Urban Families found work. At the Housing Authority, whose last A+ class ended nearly 10 months ago, only three-fourths of the class are employed. Of the 18-to-21-year-old students Digit All certifies, just 65 percent are employed.

That does mean a majority of his students get real work, no small feat considering the at-risk population he’s working in, but it’s a rate Lucas still knows he needs to improve.

“I consider that a decent number,” says Lucas of the 65 percent mark. “For an employment program, that’s pretty good. But it’s a tough sell.”

His thinking when it comes to tech employment is not all that dissimilar from what the Federal Hill-based Digital Harbor Foundation does with its STEM League and Rec2Tech Centers. As Andrew Coy, co-executive director of DHF said at Ignite Education in September, IT companies in Baltimore city “need a pipeline of local talent.”

Lucas articulates this slightly differently, but the sentiment is the same: create an employable workforce of people already living in Baltimore.

“You could head hunt people from around the world [to work in Baltimore],” he said. “Our perspective … You can use this untapped population.”

The untapped population Lucas speaks of lives in Baltimore’s low-income neighborhoods, filled predominantly with black residents, where current education offerings don’t match the realities of a changing world:

“I cannot train people just to pass a test,” said Lucas. “People need to live off [this certification training].”

Take a tour of the Digit All Systems office in downtown Baltimore:

To do the work he does, Lucas pulls from an annual budget that hovers around $300,000. Despite being a nonprofit, Digit All Systems has received just two grants—one from Verizon and another from the Abell Foundation in 2011—totaling $50,000.

It’s those partnerships Digit All maintains that help Lucas pay the bills.

Digit All Systems makes money by selling its services. One of its customers, for instance, is the Johns Hopkins Center for Social Organization of Schools, which pays Digit All to train students at Baltimore Talent Development High School in a variety of computer certification courses. The Housing Authority also pays Digit All for its teachers’ time, but does so by successfully applying for grants, using Digit All’s certification and employment metrics, and then using the money to pay for the certification courses.

“We’re social entrepreneurship, the new form of nonprofit,” Lucas says. “We don’t sit back and wait for people to give us money.”

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Andrew Zaleski

Andrew Zaleski is a freelance journalist outside Washington, D.C. He's written for Wired, Backchannel, Popular Science, Fortune, the Washington Post Magazine, the Atlantic and elsewhere.

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