Twenty years ago, the Walla Walla High School hired a consultant named Dennis DeBroeck to install computers and a network in the school. They wound up hiring him full-time – not to manage IT but to teach it in vocational education classes for students who were not expected to go to university.
When he started his first class, there were no computers for the students to work with. But Dennis had built his own small businesses, so he did not wait for the bureaucracy to deliver but borrowed, built and scrounged to provide. He started with a course in basic computer science but soon grew dissatisfied with teaching theory to young people who needed and wanted to get elbow deep into something they could care about.
Computer science soon evolved into hands-on digital media: modeling of objects, animals and people in three dimensions, texturizing the models to make them realistic, animating them and building simulations and games around them. He negotiated cheap licensing deals with the major providers of digital animation and game software and kept expanding his offerings. He built his own network, because the school’s could not possibly support his students’ needs, and assembled terabytes of server storage.
Today, Mr. DeBroeck teaches an exhausting schedule of one-hour classes for a total of 148 students. His technology budget - $500 last year – has shrunk to zero. But he has the air of a happy man. His students work hard, with more experienced students helping others over the hurdles. You can raise your hand to ask Mr. DeBroeck a question, but his standard answer is to tell you to check the online manuals and figure it out. Some kids struggle more than others, but they all learn the lesson most fundamental to success: in the end, you are your own best teacher.
His method appears to work. His past graduates work in senior positions through the entertainment industry, and his more recent grads are leaving town for media arts programs at prestigious universities, arriving there with many times the hard-core production experience of most incoming freshmen.
Walla Walla, a 2014 Smart21 Community of 30,000 people in the southeast corner of Washington State, is now trying to figure out how to forge a creative economy that can generate local opportunities for all this talent. ICF is helping with strategy and capacity-building through our Community Accelerator program. A development economist named Chris Mefford is creating a business plan for an incubator to help young people from DeBroeck’s program and the city’s award-winning community college to start and grow their own businesses. Broadband providers are collaborating on strengthening the digital infrastructure of the town. The Chamber of Commerce is working to interest a digital entertainment company to locate a studio in the city, where an outstanding quality of life is a major benefit.
It is still early days – but they are doing all the things it takes to build a digital economy on top of their successful agricultural one. I believe in patterns. The patterns I see in Walla Walla are those of an Intelligent Community getting ready for take-off.
They also have one more thing going for them. They have Mr. DeBroeck.
He teaches technology, sure. Many of his students are the kids that nobody expects to finish high school. Whatever their talents and potential, they learn something far more important from him than digital media. It is printed right on a sticker that he hands out to every new student. “Do right,” it says. “do your best” and “show people you care.”