The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) hopes to give a boost to an emerging technical specialty by launching a model high-tech school in rural Georgia.
Residents in some of southwest Georgia’s poorest counties hope the school will help lift the next generation out of a cycle of poverty and underachievement. Educators around the country who are aware of the plan hope the proposed school might serve as a model for their own districts.
NASA, the Southwest Georgia Chamber of Commerce, several state agencies, and a group of educators plan to establish a school that would focus on computer and satellite technology. The school would serve students in Georgia’s Clay, Randolph, Quitman, and Stewart counties, training them to work for the space agency and other high-tech enterprises.
"The school, as envisioned, would be the first like it in the nation and would serve as a model throughout the country for preparing young people to embrace emerging technologies and fill the work-force needs these technologies create," said John Wilson, NASA education program coordinator at the Stennis Space Center near Bay St. Louis, Miss.
Paul Ohme, director for the Center for Education Integrating Science, Mathematics, and Computing at Georgia Tech, invited Wilson to Atlanta two years ago to discuss ways NASA could help the four rural, west Georgia counties.
Local organizers are trying to raise the $3.6 million needed to build the school, which initially would serve students from sixth to eighth grades. Eventually, classes would cover grades six through 12.
Along with their high school diplomas, graduates would receive certificates in geospatial technology, which includes work with global-positioning satellites, graphic information systems, and remote sensing.
Geospatial technology involves using computers and satellite imagery to perform operations based on geography. The specialty can be used to map the extent of damage caused by a wildfire, for example, or show the size of a piece of property for tax assessments.
"I think there’s a lot of demand for it nowadays," said Glenn Letham, managing editor of spatialnews.com, a web site that specializes in the technology. "The field is growing. More and more colleges are adding courses that are specifically developed for geospatial technology. You can actually get a diploma in [geospatial technology] from a number of universities."
The NASA school concept would be a gigantic step for the four poverty-stricken counties. Their average per-capita income was only $15,499 in 1997, the last year for which statistics are available, compared with $23,882 for Georgia as a whole.
The counties have also lagged in educational achievement. Nearly 25 percent of all the adults older than 25 had less than a ninth-grade education in 1990, compared with 12 percent for the state.
"We have no place to go but up," said Dave Eversman, the chamber’s executive director. "They say we’re among the top 10 most destitute districts in the nation. With the energy and enthusiasm we’ve got here, I don’t want it to be perceived that we’re sitting around having a pity party."
Eversman said the school, which may open in two or three years, has the support of several state agencies and nearby colleges and technical schools.
"This group of academics is going to help drive the curriculum for this, which is very important," Eversman said. "NASA is going to help us. They’re going to support us in many ways, but not the brick and mortar."
Eversman said it was no accident that NASA targeted the four counties his chamber serves.
"They want to prove, if you provide the technology, education, and expertise to the poorest of the poor, that they can be successful," said Eversman, who hopes the school will help attract high-tech industries that will employ its skilled graduates.
"We don’t bring bags of money, but we’ve found that that’s not necessary," Wilson said. "We’re after systemic reform. We’ll bring ideas, inspiration, and planning in order to make this school a reality."
Alene Nelson, editor of Cuthbert’s weekly newspaper, the Southern Tribune, said the school would help uplift the four counties’ residents, who have grown weary of reading about how poor they are.
"All you need to make something come true is to believe in it and do it," she said. "It’s the bumblebee who technically isn’t built right for flight, but he does it anyway because he doesn’t know he can’t. That’s what we need to do—quit listening to people who say we can’t fly and just do it."
National Aeronautics and Space Administration