St. Joseph’s Academy is known for academics and athletics, but the 143-year-old school for young women runs on its computer “Help Desk.”
The clack of laptop keys has been a sound associated with learning at 3015 Broussard St. since 1998. The school moved to Broussard from downtown in 1940.
The first laptop was dropped or a piece of software balked or a student or faculty member needed help not long after the first computers were issued to incoming freshmen.
“There was a huge backlog of computers when I got here in 2000,” said John Richardson, founder of the “Help Desk.”
Sister Judith Brun, former principal, hired Richardson to sort out the mess after a vendor fell behind.
Today, “Help Desk” is responsible for about 1,000 laptops, one for each of the 952 students and the 75 used by faculty and staff.
Richardson was in his mid-30s when he came to the academy. Today, at 45, he and his charges are on the same frequency.
Richardson calls his computer class “independent study.” Students call it “Conversations with John.”
“How many students can do this?” Richardson asked, gesturing to the students seated around a small room that doubles as “Help Desk” and laptop repair room.
“Every school has students like these,” he said. “How many let them do this? Zero.”
Richardson bases his claim on his travels around the country telling other schools about St. Joseph’s all-girl, all-student “Help Desk.”
Are girls as good at math and science as boys is not a question asked at St. Joseph’s, said Catherine Schlesinger, 18, a May graduate.
“Here, it’s Women Power!” she said.
Her first day on “Help Desk,” Margeaux Marks, who’d had a computer architecture class, took apart a laptop.
Katelyn Dupre, 17, and Jeni Frick, 16, are building a remote-control blimp because they wanted to use their knowledge of computers to “build something that would fly.”
Richardson tells new students the answers to their questions are in their laptops. Students who learn quickly to research their own questions are the ones likely to end up on the “Help Desk.”
“I can tell you what their grade will be by Day 3,” Richardson said.
“It’s ‘What do y’all want to do?’” said Claire Luikart, 22, a 2006 academy graduate.
“One of my friends and I built a laptop,” Luikart said.
The young women, some with advanced certifications in computer repair, do the work.
“Neither I nor any other adult has done a repair in here in years,” Richardson said.
Depending on their experience and certifications, the students make $7.25 to $12 an hour.
Richardson and some of the “Help Desk” students will be in Nelspruit, South Africa, east of Johannesburg, June 30 to July 16 to begin linking 10 township schools by computer.
The St. Joseph’s students will live in Nelspruit and travel bad roads to the townships to work, Richardson said.
It will do men in the townships good to see young women not only in charge but in charge of a technical project, a woman who lives in South Africa told Richardson.
Richardson has led St. Joseph’s computer crusaders on missions to Mexico and Nicaragua. He scouted the South Africa trip last year.
“The men acquiesce,” Richardson said, “because . . . they need a job.”
In South Africa, Richardson hopes to get communication signals from public and private providers, such as an airport, and share those signals with nearby township schools.
The St. Joseph’s Academy team will wire the schools and configure networks. On return visits, they’ll provide Internet and classroom training, set up a “Help Desk” and assist in establishing a telemedicine center.
Retiring St. Joseph’s physics teacher Kathy Morello knows what computers in the hands of students mean to a school and its teachers.
“It re-energized me,” said Morello, who came to the academy in 1999.
“It made teaching physics new and exciting again,” she said.
“I have them all on Skype nights before a problem’s due or there’s a test. They’re all in CC’s (coffee shop) ‘talking to Morello’ is what I hear. They call me Ms. Morello to my face.”