One week ago, the computer lab at Oak Park Elementary School remained empty when the children went home, the Apple computers and printers silent in the dark.
Tuesday night, the lights came on. Community members and volunteers gathered to open the Oak Park Community Technology Learning Center, a place where any Hillsborough County adult can learn to read, to pass a high school equivalency test, to use a computer or to get a job _ for free.
"We want you to come and learn. We want you to pursue and get that degree," Allan Karp, the center's general manager, told the 15 women who attended the opening.
Karp is senior sales engineer for Intermedia Communications, a telecommunications firm sponsoring the center. Last year, Intermedia "adopted" Oak Park and Graham Elementary, where close to 100 percent of students receive free or reduced-price lunches and students leave and re-enter school often.
Oak Park, near 10th Avenue and 50th Street, already had a room full of computers, but there were plenty of teachers, parents and neighborhood residents who didn't know how to use them, Karp said. Now through June, the center will offer three courses, all free to participants 18 or older: reading, GED preparation and job advancement.
Volunteers, many from Intermedia, will help reading students learn basic literacy from textbooks, then transfer them to the computer. People who want to pass a high school equivalency exam can use software programs to prepare, and the center will pay for the test. Volunteers from Computer Plus Staffing Solutions will teach students how to dress for interviews and prepare resumes.
About seven students already are signed up, including Oak Park teachers, parents and grandparents. The technology center is a pilot _ if it is successful, Intermedia hopes to provide blueprints so other companies can sponsor centers at more Hillsborough schools.
Beyond the practical benefits, the center will "send a message" to students, said Jeff Millman, Oak Park's principal.
When they see parents and other neighborhood adults attending classes, "it will say that you don't go to that school and mess around. You go to do what's right," Millman said.
"When you get families involved, that is the key we need to get over the hump, to make kids realize that learning is serious."
Classes will be offered 6 to 8 p.m. Tuesday and Thursday and 9 a.m. to noon two Saturdays per month. Participants can set their own schedules and work at their own pace, Karp said.
To pay for GED tests, software and bus fare, Intermedia is looking for corporate sponsors to pledge $50 to $75 per student.
For information, call Allan Karp at 829-2504.