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On road to college, with their own PCs

Phoenixville pilot program levels the field for students, and a nonprofit helps pave the digital way.

On Christmas morning in the Phoenixville area, there were 27 high-school students who didn't have to worry if that laptop they'd been wishing for was waiting for them under the tree.

Each of those students was able to buy a laptop earlier this month, thanks to a first-year program for economically disadvantaged students at Phoenixville Area High School and to a local nonprofit that sells used computers at reasonable prices.

Assistant principal Craig Parkinson is in his second year at Phoenixville Area High School. This fall he teamed up with fellow assistant principal Amber Gentile and Nan Odenthal, the district's director of development, to start Destinations with Direction, a program aimed at getting economically disadvantaged and minority students thinking about college.

"For some of these students, college is just something that people talk about, not something they would pursue," explained Parkinson. The 27 members of Destinations with Direction's pilot class - sophomores, juniors, and seniors - were selected based on their grades and economic backgrounds.

Starting in September, every Wednesday night, the students returned to school from 6 to 7:30. Each meeting covered a different aspect of getting them into, and ready for, college. Writing workshops covered how to attack the college-application essays, and an official from the Pennsylvania Higher Education Assistance Agency came to explain the convoluted financial-aid forms.

The kids hit the road in late October on a three-day tour with stops at Millersville University, at Howard University in the nation's capital, and at Virginia State University in Petersburg.

One Wednesday, assistant superintendent Maria Schwab led a public-speaking seminar. But it was a tip from superintendent David R. Noyes that led Parkinson and company to TeamChildren and their laptops.

Robert Toporek is a story unto himself. The King of Prussia resident started TeamChildren 10 years ago to serve his life philosophy "that every kid should have the benefits of a good massage and a computer."

Toporek, 60, of King of Prussia, is a certified advanced Rolf practitioner (a highly specialized form of deep-tissue massage), and he says he has Rolfed current Eagles Jon Runyan and Chris Gocong, and former Eagle Irving Fryar, among others.

It's the computer side of TeamChildren, based out of a warehouse in Audubon, that interested Parkinson. Toporek and TeamChildren collect old computers from area companies, refurbish them so they're ready to go again, and sell the computers at a low price to people on the other side of the digital divide.

Toporek sets prices between $50 and $225, depending on the type of computer, and the money goes to covering TeamChildren's costs. He usually charges $225 for laptops like the Dells he sold to the Phoenixville students, but he cut the price to $200 after Parkinson and the kids came out to Audubon on Dec. 8 to help out around the warehouse for a few hours.

"Sometimes, people come here and they're not too happy about volunteering," said Toporek, "but they were totally thrilled about the opportunity to get a computer."

Parkinson said his students are enjoying their new laptops.

"They've all had very positive things to say about them, how they've already begun to use them for schoolwork," said Parkinson. Toporek said that if any of the students had problems with their computers, he'd be happy to swap them out. "You can't beat that at Best Buy, Comp USA, anywhere," Parkinson said.

As for the now wireless students of Destinations with Direction? Parkinson is in talks with West Chester University to get some tutors out to Phoenixville to set up a two-week program over the summer that would have the students stay on campus and take courses. But that all requires funding, which Destinations with Direction is in need of.

Donations can be sent to Phoenixville Area High School, 1200 Gay St., Phoenixville 19460. Attn: Nan Odenthal, Destinations with Direction.

For more information on TeamChildren, visit