Activating a digital revolution

When Rudy Blanco ’06 saw that students at Bronx, N.Y.-based DreamYard Preparatory High School lacked basic access to technology—as well as rudimentary computer and internet skills—he decided to take action.

“We were running old computers in poor working condition,” recalled Blanco, who at the time was teaching special education at DreamYard Prep. “If the Department of Education required standardized tests on the computer, our kids wouldn’t know how to log into their accounts.”

Blanco approached administrators at DreamYard Project (dreamyard.org)—a nonprofit and community arts organization that works closely with the high school—with a proposition: establish the position technology coordinator, and hire him to fill it. They accepted.

That was five years ago. Since then, his success shepherding a new fleet of technology and tech-savvy student leaders has landed him many accolades, including being named the June 2017 national honoree by nonprofit HonorEd (www.honored.org).

During his tenure, he led a partnership with Google—which at the time donated 100 Chromebooks. “In the first year, we went from 30 devices to 100 devices, at a school with 350 students. By the end of the first year, computers and technology were being used pretty much everywhere in the school,” he said.

He also partnered with and launched Mouse Squad (www.mouse.org)—student techies who train teachers and students in using online resources. The program has grown from six to 28 students, including two young leaders who single handedly coordinated an orientation program involving signing up and training 60 incoming ninth graders with online accounts and services.

“The kids ran the entire group. It was like a symphony, watching them. It blew my mind,” he said.

Blanco, a Queens, N.Y., native and Posse Foundation scholar (given to students with “extraordinary academic and leadership potential”), said his work is coming full circle.

At Wheaton, he originally had planned to major in computer science, but struggled in the courses. He loved technology, but coding and web development wasn’t quite a fit.  

His Posse mentor, the late Professor Gordon “Gordy” Weil, convinced him to consider sociology given his natural aptitude and high marks in the subject. “He guided me through stressful and intense moments, helping me realize what subject and field I was meant to do,” he said.

Blanco also developed an appreciation for the power of mentorship as a resident advisor. He knew firsthand the struggles of adapting freshman year. “I always felt that if I don’t sit down to help freshman, no one else will,” he said.

In the meantime, Blanco said he found his voice, and confidence, in Professor Michelle Harris’s sociology course. “Her courses taught me to speak up, and hold my own. It clicked for me,” he said.

Harris (who now teaches at the University of Albany) recalls Blanco as an enthusiastic student with “the kind of energy that is absolutely infectious.”

She said, “Rudy was curious, engaged, and most importantly, invested in seeing the links between theoretical concepts and the real-life application of those ideas.”

After graduating from Wheaton with a bachelor’s degree in sociology, Blanco received his M.Ed. in special education from the City University of New York City College.

He loved teaching and working with students, but his passion for technology never faded. By the time he was at DreamYard Prep, he knew he wanted to work not on computer programs, but instruction, mentorship and leadership building.

At DreamYard, his success continues to blossom. Mouse Squad is handling tech support cases and improving digital literacy school-wide. Students are passing along their skills to younger students, which Blanco said fulfills his mentorship goal of “teaching to teach”—exponential learning that makes an incredible impact.

In the summer of 2017, students embarked on an initiative to meet with Bronx-area businesses—many of which have no online presence—to help them better market their products and services through websites and inclusion on online business listings.

“Seventy percent of tech jobs are in sales and marketing. With the kids showing business owners how to get online, they are learning valuable skills,” he said.

With the award from HonorEd, Blanco was given $1,000 to distribute to teachers and administrators working on technology initiatives. “I really liked that feeling of helping projects meet their goals,” he said.

Blanco now is positioning himself to make an even bigger impact, taking on a transitional role at DreamYard so he can build partnerships between more schools—and students—with technology companies. (DreamYard Project works with over 45 schools in the Bronx.)

He will work half time at DreamYard Preparatory High School and half time in the central office, using his ability to network and foster connections to drive more resources into closing the digital gap, and empowering students to become tomorrow’s entrepreneurs.

“I feel like I’ve reached a point for change. I have ambitions for the work of providing access to people who rarely have it. I can translate between tech companies and schools. I want to work to build partnerships, help schools get funding, and inspire philanthropists to empower more young people,” he said.

In the meantime, Mouse Squad is busy at work—teaching tomorrow’s teachers critical digital skills to get them ahead.