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Putting Her Best Foot Forward

Lynch School alumnna and teaching fellow is gearing up to compete in 156-mile marathon - and bring technology to the kids at her school

03/14/13
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Elizabeth Byron '06 with her students at the Gardner Pilot Academy in Allston. (Photos by Lee Pellegrini)

By Ed Hayward | Chronicle Staff

Published: Mar. 13, 2013

Next month, deep in the Sahara Desert, Elizabeth Byron ’06 will compete in the Marathon de Sables, an ultra-marathon across 156 miles of Moroccan sand and dust that has been called the “toughest footrace on Earth.”

It isn’t a catered eco-tourism affair. Byron will carry 25 pounds of dehydrated food and survival gear on her back. Mandatory race equipment includes an anti-venom pump. Crevasses, bone-dry wadis, a “stony pass,” the occasional oasis, and a steady tide of sand dunes mark the route.

Not that any of this intimidates Byron, an All America swimmer and a Rhodes Scholar nominee as an undergraduate.

The daunting task is something more personal: leveraging the run to raise $50,000 to purchase new laptops so every sixth grade student at the Gardner Pilot Academy in Allston, where Byron teaches, can benefit from cutting-edge technology. To date, she is halfway toward her goal. She is paying all travel and race expenses out of her own pocket.

“The fundraising is tougher,” said Byron, who taught in New York and internationally for almost three years before joining the Boston Public Schools in 2010. She also is a Lynch School of Education teaching fellow. “I can control the race and the training. Raising money is much harder than I thought, but it’s such a great cause. I think people understand that all students should have these opportunities.”

Byron rarely shies away from a challenge. She starred for four years on the BC swim team as a record-setting sprint specialist, two-time BC swimming and diving MVP and Academic All American.

Swimming and Diving Coach Tom Groden said his former star never let anything stand in her way, either athletically or academically.

“As an athlete, Liz’s raw talent is matched by her work ethic,” said Groden. “Her attitude is: Anybody can do it. You just have to want to do it. If you work hard enough, you can succeed.”

Byron, who worked to overcome the learning disability dyslexia, graduated at the top of her Lynch School of Education class. She went on to earn masters degrees from Harvard’s Graduate School of Education and Lesley University. In her spare time, she started running. She has finished six marathons, completed an Ironman Triathlon and undertaken other races and competitions.

But Byron’s overriding passion is teaching, particularly working with students in urban schools. At the Gardner, Byron is a learning specialist teaching reading, writing and math to an inclusive class of 42 sixth graders.

In a pilot school where Byron says the teaching culture encourages finding innovative solutions to any problem, she has taken aim at a digital divide that places her students at a disadvantage to peers who come from schools and homes with greater technological resources.

“These students deserve improved access to technology in the classroom,” she said. “To expect them to be productive members of a technologically-oriented society and not provide them with that opportunity is mind-boggling. It’s like saying you’re going to be a chef, but we’re not going to supply you with any food as you learn to cook.”

For the past four years, Byron has applied for entry to Marathon de Sables, finally receiving a race number this year. Byron quickly decided to meld the adventure race with the Gardner’s technology initiative. The money she raises will purchase laptops to serve every sixth grader, upgrade Wi-Fi connections and service the new technology.

Principal Erica Herman said her young teacher is “what Gardner Pilot Academy is all about.”

Associate Professor of Education Richard Jackson, who co-teaches a graduate seminar with Byron, said she embodies the Lynch School’s commitment to social justice and improving the lives of all students.

“Students all over America are learning 21st-century skills using technology, and Liz asks why can’t her students receive the same opportunity,” said Jackson. “So she runs to inspire, raise hope and purchase laptops for her students at Gardner Pilot Academy. Liz is an amazing person.”

Byron has been running between 10 and 20 hours a week, with training runs varying from five to 50 miles. The seven-day race starts on April 7. Her strategy is to stay hydrated and healthy and avoid getting passed by a camel.

“There’s a camel at the back of the pack, going at the slowest pace allowed,” said Byron. “If the camel passes you, you’re out of the race.”

Byron said more than a few people have asked her if she’s crazy.

“I think it’s crazy that students today wouldn’t have laptops or access to the benefits of technology,” she said. “I think that’s crazier than running through the desert.”

For more information about Liz Byron’s Run For Laptops fundraiser, conducted on behalf of the Boston Educational Development Foundation, see Byron’s webpage at http://www.runforlaptops.org.