Ensuring Access and Opportunity: Supporting At-Home Connectivity

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The issue of at-home student connectivity is something that ICLE’s Eric Sheninger and I address in our new book, Learning Transformed. It has also been a core value of Future Ready Schools®, a free initiative to support school leaders in their digital transformation.

Why is the issue of at-home student connectivity so vital?

According to a report released by the Pew Research Center, approximately 5 million of the 29 million households with school-aged children lack access to high-quality broadband Internet while at home. The research indicates that almost one-third of households whose incomes fall below $50,000 and with children ages 6 to 17 do not have a high-speed Internet connection. The data also makes it evident that low-income households—especially our minority families—make up a disproportionate percentage of the 5 million families without access. Coined “The Homework Gap,” this means that many of the children sitting in our classrooms lose connectivity the moment they step off our campuses. At a time when approximately 70% of our nation’s teachers are requiring some sort of digital work outside the school walls, this places many of our students who are most in need at a severe disadvantage. How does your school handle this issue?

Equity in opportunity isn’t something that solely affects our nation’s school children. The need for connectivity to become a productive member of society has skyrocketed since the beginning of this century. Whether it’s continuing education, applying for a job, or access to the world’s information, the ability to connect is vital for economic opportunity. As such, the federal government, the FCC, and other organizations have worked to bring this issue to the forefront.

In the summer of 2015, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and the Obama Administration launched a follow up to its ConnectED Initiative, called ConnectHome. This initiative works to join communities, the private sector, and the federal government to expand high-speed broadband to more than 275,000 low-income households, which would support nearly 200,000 of our nation’s children living in HUD-assisted housing across the nation. The goals of ConnectHome are to make broadband Internet more adoptable, more valuable, and more sustainable. From Newark, New Jersey, to Los Angeles, California, groups are working to provide high-speed access in federally funded housing areas.

The Lifeline Program
In 1985, the Lifeline Program was created to provide a substantial discount on phone service for low-income Americans. At that time, the goal of the program was to “ensure that all Americans had the opportunities and security that phone service brings, including being able to connect to jobs, family and emergency services.” To participate in the program, consumers must either have an income that is at or below 135% of the federal Poverty Guidelines or participate in one of a number of government assistance programs. In the spring of 2016, the FCC voted to modernize the program to include broadband services for low-income families. This came at a time when 43% of the nation’s poorest families indicated that they couldn’t afford such services. However, in January of 2017, new FCC leadership paused the modernization arguing that this access should be decided by states and was not a federal role. School leaders should keep an eye on the FCC and what happens here. Recently, the Alliance for Excellent Education and CoSN released this brief on the topic.

Districts Leading the Way with Innovative Initiatives
As districts work locally to close this gap, some are rising to the top when it comes to innovative connectivity practices. The leaders in these districts have prioritized this issue and are working to grant connectivity to their students around the clock.

Albemarle County Public Schools, Virginia
In possibly the most robust example that I’ve seen, the team in Albemarle County Public Schools is creating its own 4G wi-fi network throughout the county. Their motto of “All Means All,” combined with innovative thinking from CIO Vince Scheivert, Superintendent Pam Moran and others, will enable Albemarle to provide all families in their county with free wi-fi access at home by the summer of 2019 as they continue to build out their countywide network; an incredible accomplishment and support for student learning.

Coachella Valley Unified District, California
Coachella Valley Unified School District in California is a district where 100% of the students qualify for free and reduced lunch. It’s also known as one of the poorest areas in the United States. Retired Superintendent Darryl Adams helped put the at-home connectivity issue on the map nationwide. Many of Coachella’s students ride the bus for over an hour each way. Simply putting wi-fi on buses was not enough for Adams, as when students got home they would completely lose connectivity in this southwestern desert community. After noticing that students would park around the district office on the weekends to gain connectivity, Adams began to pilot wi-fi on his buses, but not just for the transportation to/from school. Adams parked the district’s buses enabled with wi-fi in the poorest neighborhoods overnight so that students could remain connected while at home. When the router batteries began losing their charge after a few hours, solar panels were added to extend connectivity throughout the night.

Kent School District, Washington
In Kent School District, equal online access for all students was made a formal priority. As part of the district’s Student Technology, Access, and Resources (STAR) Initiative, wi-fi-enabled kiosks are placed throughout the community in convenient locations such as apartment complexes, community centers, laundromats, and church lobbies to support both student and parent access. Students are able to complete classwork and parents are able to stay up-to-date on student progress at these free kiosk locations. Furthermore, the kiosks broadcast wi-fi up to 150 feet, where students can access the school network on district-issued devices, further decreasing the connectivity gap.

Spartanburg School District Seven, South Carolina
Seven Ignites, the technology-focused website of Spartanburg Seven, gives community businesses direct access to becoming a D7 Wi-fi Hotspot Partner, in an effort to help the district close its connectivity gap. With such a partnership, students are able to use the district’s wi-fi hotspot map, to seek out locations for free connectivity. Spartanburg School District Seven then shares their wi-fi map with their community in an effort to help families get the connectivity that they need.

Yet with all of the work by the FCC, the former administration, and many national organizations, many of our children remain disconnected while at home—a sad reality and disadvantage when it’s predicted that 77% of jobs will require digital skills by 2020.

How will your district ensure that those who remain unconnected receive the needed access and opportunity?

Check out our sessions on both Learning Transformed and Future Ready Schools at this month’s Model Schools Conference, June 25–28 in Nashville!

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